Teaching Graduate Students

Today's other post is a long letter from a graduate student at the Communication University of Beijing.  In my introductory comments, I pointed out that the problems of large class sizes, high student-teacher ratios, sub-standard facilities, poor-quality teachers, ill-matched labor demand-supply, and so on are not unique to China.

But I do have something to say about the graduate school experience that indicates about how the Chinese and Americans might be handling some of these problems differently.

If we make a global comparison of the quality of university faculties, the overall opinion should be that the Americans rule at this point in time.  For example, this can be measured in terms of the number of distinguished awards (such as the Nobel prizes or Field Medals) won by various countries.  While the United States no doubt attracts a number of immigrant foreign scholars, the homegrown talents would still lead the rest of the world by far.

How did the Americans get to this position?  It is not necessarily the case that they have that much more educational resources than anyone else, or that their students were that much more talented.  A few days ago, I had this post about high school English in Australia, in which I commented that what the Australian students go through is probably unthinkably and impossibly difficult in the United States.  No, they do not teach deconstruction in American high schools!

This item just came in today's news about American high school students:

Three out of 10 students who enter high school in the United States do not graduate, four out of 10 who do graduate lack the skills and knowledge to go on to college or to succeed in the work force, according to Virginia Governor Mark Warner, chairman of the association. "The economic ramifications of that could be devastating to our country," he said.

"Our schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age,"[Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill]  Gates said Saturday at a two-day National Education Summit, cosponsored by the National Governors Association and Achieve Inc., a partnership created by the governors and the business community aimed at increasing standards and accountability in education.

High schools, he said, leave most students unprepared for college and for today's jobs. "When I compare our high school with what I see abroad," he added, "I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow."

I spent one-and-a-half years at an Australian university (namely, the University of New South Wales), and I did only honors-track mathematics during that sophomore half-year.  The textbooks that I used for those six months could not be assigned in the masters students at my American university (namely, the State University of New York at Stony Brook).  The American students were really that far behind the Australians (see also College: An Endangered Species?).  So how did the American dominance occur in mathematics and other fields?

I cannot say definitively what the reasons are, and there must be plenty of them.  But I will tell how a certain group of American graduate students took care of themselves, and this may be one good reason.  This was related to me by my doctoral thesis committee chairman.  As such, it may be a fairy tale but it has a good pedagogical ring to it.

Once upon a time, the best Department of Statistics in the whole wide world was at Princeton University (which Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Harvard alumni will no doubt contest).  The founding father of the department was the legendary John W. Tukey, who was considered a giant in the field (which nobody can deny).  Although the department was small with only half a dozen faculty members, those people had stellar reputations that every graduate student dreamed to work with.  Each year, Princeton University would admit only about half a dozen new graduate students.  So the reputation of Princeton was not based upon mass production, but on the quality of the alumni.

When the graduate students arrived on campus, the message was basically this: the faculty members were all very busy senior researchers and they had no intention of teaching the basics to the new students.  Instead, the students were told that they were the elite crop and therefore they should be able to figure out things for themselves.  What to do!?  They can pack up their bags and return home; they can throw themselves on the floor and have a fit; they can picket the university president's office; they can write letters to the student newspaper and cry about the death of the Princeton spirit; they can file a lawsuit against the university for broken promises; or they can make do for themselves.  Well, guess what?  They made do for themselves, just as all the preceding generations did.

The new graduate students got together and figured things out.  They consulted the curricula of other universities and figured out what the basic core requirements were.  For example, the first semester may cover probability theory; hypothesis testing; estimation theory; regression theory; experimental design/analysis of variance; times series analysis.  So each student picked one of these topics, and then they proceeded to teach other.  Thus, one student would learn as much about probability theory as possible, and then he/she would come in to conference room and start lecturing to the others in a systematic way.  Those 'lectures' would be highly interactive as the other students may ask very penetrating questions that the 'lecturer' must try to answer competently.  No one could afford to come unprepared since they would be letting the others down.  In fact, even the 'students' came well prepared to issue challenging questions.

For the next semester, the students made up a more advanced list of subjects: multivariate analysis; nonparametric statistics; contingency table analysis; sequential analysis; survival analysis; and so on.  Within one year's time, these neophyte graduate students became well-versed in the basics.  But it was much more than having someone copying the textbook on the blackboard for them.  They knew how to learn on their own, they knew how to teach in a systematic and coherent way, they can defend their knowledge competently and confidently, they can dissect other people's presentations and they had a tremendous sense of fellowship that would last for life.  By the second year, they were ready to participate in the advanced seminars with their professors and the students who came before them.

The list of alumni from the Department of Statistics at Princeton University includes some of the biggest names in the field.  This was one way by which the United States achieved a dominant role in the field of statistics.  The stories with other fields of study may be completely different.

The pedagogical lesson here is about self-reliance and self-determination.  In the case of the Chinese female graduate student at the Communication University of Beijing, she had the idea that the faculty members were depositories of knowledge and wisdom, but she was sorely disappointed when she find them neither wise nor knowledgeable; and even if they were, the information was not going to be transmitted to her in that environment.  Thus, she and her friends sat around and wondered what will happen to them in the apparently dim future.

By contrast, the graduate students at the Department of Statistics in Princeton University were told to take care of themselves because nobody else was going to help them.  They turned to themselves and they forged their own futures.  How will this quintessentially free-market and anti-authoritarian lesson ever get through to their Chinese counterparts today?

P.S.  The astute reader will notice that I had related a story told by my dissertation committee chairman, and would justifiably wonder about my own experience.  My own story is 'extra'-ordinary and therefore not interesting.  I was the first doctoral student from a newly formed Department of Statistics at my university.  As such, I had no peers to speak of, really.  I went through the Princeton experience largely all by my lonesome self, but it was not really any different except for the lack of a circle of lifelong friends.

(Miami Herald)  Classroom observations from an insider.  By Rich Halvorson.  March 52, 2005.

While Florida students take the FCAT exam, the teacher supervising each classroom is required to keep eyes on the students at all times -- no e-mails, reading or other distractions.

Amid the quiet rustle of my 33 test-takers, I decided to use my four hours of silence to observe this classroom scene and meditate on why many U.S. public schools and students fail to perform adequately. For parents or legislators curious about the FCAT in Miami-Dade's low-income schools, here's a peek inside.

Just calling attendance, any illusions about ''integrated'' public schools are wiped away. My class was typical for the school -- 29 black students, three Latinos and one white.

Once the test began and the students were quiet, we heard the intermittent traffic of rats scampering through the air ducts. This was no surprise, since students often see mice and rats in their classrooms. Most mornings, I'm greeted by fresh mouse droppings on my grade book and around my desk.

Each time the classroom door opened -- usually when a student went for a drink from the water fountain -- an odor of stale urine wafted in from the hallway. For this, negligence by both the students and custodial staff share equal blame.

One hour into the exam, obnoxious hammering startled the whole class. It was a maintenance crew working next door. Other tools soon joined -- as a cacophony of drilling and sawing echoed off the concrete walls. Apparently the crew was a week late to arrive and install some new equipment. Although the installation had waited a week, apparently it couldn't be delayed another couple of hours until the FCAT finished.

During a stretch break, one student commented, ''These readings are terrible.'' I replied, ''What type of stories to you prefer?'' He scoffed, ''I dunno -- I never read anything.'' He was one among my room full of 11th graders making a third attempt to pass the reading portion of the FCAT. Even so, some still lacked much sense of urgency. During the test, I had to nudge several students who fell asleep and confiscate a cellphone in the middle of a game of Tetris.

This is the reality at a ''C'' school in Miami-Dade County with an excellent administrative staff. I can only imagine the scene at the ''double-F'' schools. How can it be that tens of millions of young Americans attend dilapidated schools often lacking basic sanitation, qualified teachers and up-to-date textbooks? At a Washington education summit last weekend, Bill Gates berated America's high schools, saying they are ``ruining the lives of millions of Americans each year.''

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner reported that ``three out of 10 students who enter high school do not graduate. Four out of 10 who do graduate lack the skills and knowledge to go on to college or succeed in the work force.''

With a little simple math, this adds up to 60 percent of young Americans being unprepared to participate in our nation's fast-paced, high-skills economy.

Nationally, this foreshadows economic disaster unless we can pull off a political and cultural about-face regarding education. Our global position is unsustainable with an illiterate and unskilled work force.

Further, we must remember that this 60 percent is not evenly distributed across schools. In many low-income areas, the number of unprepared students may be as high as 90 percent. Until we remedy this vast inequality of opportunity, the national divide along race and income lines will surely worsen.

Our laws claim to provide a free and universal education for every child. In fact, our broken system has a high price tag -- it costs millions of minorities their dreams and their future. And with nearly two-thirds of young Americans unprepared for life, the system jeopardizes our nation as a whole.

If we continue with mere tinkering and testing, we will pay dearly for decades of worsening injustice and utter negligence.