Future of the University: Teaching or Research?

Ever since my first day in College, I’ve heard a rumor that “good teachers can’t do research and good researchers can’t teach”, which is true based on my experience. The best teachers I’ve had during my higher education are usually not as proficient at research as those “bad” teachers. However, while I admire those good researchers, I really suffer from their teaching. Most of the times they sit on the podium and read slides. Students do all kinds of things in the classroom but listening to the lecture. Then in the last few days of class we download the slides and cram for exams. I learnt nothing.

Ever since my first day of preparing to be a future professor in higher education, I’ve heard two completely different voices. Most of my Ph.D. friends and some professors say “The only thing that determines whether you are a good professor or not, whether you get promotion or not, and whether you can really have a place in higher education or not is publication”. “Publication publication publication.” They stressed, “That’s the only important thing. Do not waste time on teaching; it’s just an obligation that needs to be done.” Well, to some extent I know that they are right. But then my advisor, my classmates and instructors in the Preparing Future Professoriate program say “teaching is as well important! We need to be good teachers in higher education for the future generation”. I know they are correct, too.

Therefore, ever since my first day of writing blogs about higher education, I’ve been thinking about this question: What will I put more emphasis on once I become a university professor? Teaching or research? Can I do both well? If not, if I choose research, will I become one of the professors that I hated during my own higher education? No that’s not what I want to do! How can I solve this dilemma?

Well, In my very first blog post for this class, I wrote about university’s mission statements. And I can see that while some universities put more emphasis on research, others put more on teaching. So that’s a good thing and possibly a solution to my problem. If I like teaching more, I can go to a teaching university and vice versa. But, most of the good universities in the States (and in many other countries, too) emphasize research, which means that a lot of good students in these top universities may actually not receive a top higher education because that’s not where the universities put emphasis on!

We can’t blame the professors too much on this because everyone has limited energy and it’s hard to achieve high results in both teaching and research. Virginia Tech is trying to solve this by hiring collegiate professors, who are only in charge of teaching and don’t need to do research. I really like this idea. But then another problem comes out: how can we relate the cutting-edge scientific results from good research to our higher education teaching?

How to achieve both good teaching and research: this is a problem that needs an urgent solution for higher education and we really need to put equal emphasis on both. Higher education is where our future generation is educated and inspired, and they deserve a good teaching environment. If we keep neglecting the importance of a good balance between teaching and research, we will make higher education less and less efficient helpful.

University Culture

April 8, 2016 was the 120th birthday of my undergraduate university — Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), because Jiao Tong means “transportation” and there is a Chinese idiom related to “4” and “8” that means “extend in all directions”.

The University has been publicizing this and almost all the big electronic screens in Shanghai are playing our promotional videos recently. All kinds of shows and programs are initiated to celebrate SJTU’s 120 birthday. Famous people such as our president and Ming Yao, who is the former NBA basketball player in Huston Rocket, is back to school and is attending SJTU to get a business degree now, even attended in a comedy to celebrate the birthday.

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We are so proud of our universities and really have a sense of belonging there. That is part of universities’ culture that I believe is really important. In the States, universities such as VT have sports culture, Greek life, Hokies T-shirts, etc. Surprisingly, in a lot of other universities worldwide, there’s no university T-shirt. Back to SJTU, we have T-shirts and hats of SJTU as well, and they are usually of good quality and not cheap. Other university cultures include the university song, the university slogan, the university badge and so on.

University culture is a good way of publicizing and improve students sense of belonging. It is an important part of university life and worth spending time and money.

Gender Gaps in Academia

I ran into a discussion on the average IQ plot of students by gender ratio the other day. The plot is attached here and follow this link for the original post.


An interesting and obvious “fact” from this plot seems to be that the more women a major has, the lower average IQ the students from that major have; thus men are smarter than women. But, assuming that the statistics are accurate (which probably are not and have some kind of sampling bias), we should not forget that correlation is NOT causation.

For example, in an experiment conducted by Katherine Milkman, Module Akinola, and Dolly chugh (look at the New York Times report on this), they sent more than 6500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities from fictional prospective students for Ph.D. program seeking. And it turned out that professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost EVERY discipline and across all types of universities. And that the lower the percentage of the minorities (including women) in a discipline, the less responsive the professors to the minorities were. This could be one of the potential reasons for the less representative of women in technology and science.

Also, since 1970, the percentage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has actually been increasing from 7% to 26% in 2011 according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. The situation is continuously changing with the liberation of women going on.

In conclusion, this plot is worth discussing but DOES NOT mean that men are smarter than women. Let’s continue striving for making our higher education more inclusive and prejudice-free.

Thanks to the post by Yuguangtongchen on Zhihu (Chinese Quora) to inspire me on this post. 

Academic Freedom in the Flint Lead Water Crisis

The incident that Charles Murray, one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, is going to visit Virginia Tech (VT) and give a talk invokes a large discussion among the university about academic freedom and racism problem. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Protecting academic freedom is its core mission.

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure)

This reminds me of the famous Flint lead water crisis going on recently. Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from VT, a winner once in his crusade battle against the federal government to protect residents of Washington from lead water, received a phone call in April 2015 from a woman in Flint, claiming that something was seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap and her family’s health was in danger. Dr. Edwards tested her water and found out that “it was the worst lead levels he had ever seen”. He was so furious that he formed a research team in VT to investigate the incident and “go all in for Flint”. They even have an official “Flint Water Study Updates” website to cover the progress, spread related knowledge and information, and raise funding.

This event has attracted much attention and Dr. Edwards’ research surely pushed the investigation progress a lot. In March 23, 2016, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force published the final report on the website. If there is no academic freedom, it could be much harder for Dr. Edwards to stand out and confront the government.

Another related small story: last week, I had an interview with a technical leader from a coastal consulting company. He was very polite and appraised my advisor’s study for being useful and constructive to the engineering field. Therefore, I believe that academic freedom is not only about the right to research freely, but also about the responsibility to protect and advance the common good,  just like what Dr. Edwards and my advisor has been trying to do, and also what we all shall strive to do.

We have different history textbooks

I was sent to the National Taiwan University in the summer of 2012 as a visiting student for six weeks. I did some cool research on micro fluids in NTU, met some nice friends and had a good time. All in all, I love Taiwan and the time there.

One thing I had wanted to do and did do with my friends there was to go to a book store and check out the history textbooks — sounds crazy and dumb? No. For those who don’t know, here is the thing: there were two Parties in China during and shortly after the Second World War: the Communist Party and Kuomintang. They cooperated with each other during WW2 but started a civil war immediately after the WW2 victory. Then Kuomintang was defeated by the Communist Party and moved to Taiwan. “Legitimacy belongs to the victor”. So in the history textbook in mainland China, the Communist Party is the major force in the war of resistance against Japan. But, I had been hearing the rumor that the history textbook in Taiwan, of which the content is determined by Kuomintang, is different from ours, and said that Kuomintang is actually the leading power to defeat Japan (which, to be honest, I believe is the truth). So, we were curious and went to a bookstore to find out — and it is true! The description tongue and the “facts” written are very different from ours.

Just one simple example in my life of how curriculum is related to power. A more generalized and extreme example can be found in 1984, George O’well’s famous novel. And that’s ONE reason why we need critical pedagogy.

Higher Education in China

As a student spending more than 20 years in China, I want to talk about the higher education in China from two aspects. One is some basic information about Chinese education, and the other is some personal experiences I had and my viewpoints about it developed during my education in China.

Some facts and numbers:

  • China education is the largest education system in the world. According to the latest data (2015) of China Ministry of Education, there were 2845 higher education institutions in China, including public and private institutions, enrolling 23.91 million students.
  • Xiaoping Deng resumed the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gao Kao) in 1977. A growing number of students have been taking the test since then. In 2015 there were 9.42 million students taking Gao Kao.
  • Investment in education accounts for about 4% of total GDP in China in 2015.
  • Until 2014, more than 377,000 international students from 203 countries or regions  are enrolled in over 775 higher education institutions in China.
  • “211 Project”: 100 universities in the 21st century. “985 Project”: 10-12 world-class universities. Investments from the government in these key public universities are much higher than others.
  • Tuition fees are waived for students in the six national normal (i.e., teacher education) universities since 2007.

Some of my experiences in Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) (“211” and “985”, a top 5 university in China ):

  • The government does invest a lot of money in higher education. We have a very large campus and many fancy facilities. We have a 3-D printer in our main library that can print for students for free. I study in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. Our wave tank is highly-equipped and ranks second among all the wave tanks in the world, only after the MARIN tank in Holland.
  • Our campus life is full of fun. Other than six buildings of restaurants on campus and numerous off campus, we have a life center that sells all kinds of things including computers, books, snacks etc.. The barbecue restaurant at this life center never closes before midnight. Every semester, we have this event called “the Hundred Regiments”, in which all student organizations have a desk of their own and recruit. Organizations include debate team, dancing club, chess club, comics club, etc.. I joined about 5 of these organizations. From my point of view, unlike the Greek life in VT, these organizations are more diverse and inclusive.
  • There’s little finance problems for students in college. The tuition fee is low. More than 50% in my department can get scholarships and we have other kinds of stipends for low-income students, too.
  • Our president morning-run with us every semester! He’s the nicest president!
  • While I had the happiest four years in my life in my undergraduate there in SJTU, I have to admit that the biggest problem for me, and probably for most of the undergraduates in China is that we pay less attention to schoolwork once we finished Gao Kao, which is the most difficult and important test in our life according to our parents and teachers. The high requirements for entering college do not keep going to ensure the high quality of graduated students from college.

To conclude, our higher education is booming but we have our problems, too. But  I love our college life and I’m confident that it’ll get better and better.

“I feel like arguing with a woman”

Several months ago, on a popular entertainment science show in China called “The Strongest brain”, two people started an argument on whether or not the assessment for an challenger is reasonable. One person is a neuroscientist and a professor from Peking University, one of the top universities in China. He likes to say that “Science is the sole criterion for evaluation”.  The other person is a very famous author/businessman/editor/director/teen idol, but also a controversial person. Some people think he is shallow. And he is often teased by other people for being short and like a girl.

They argued with each other so fiercely, and suddenly the professor said:

“I can’t stand this. I feel like arguing with a woman.”

The writer was so outraged that even if the professor apologized twice, he stormed out of the scene and refused to come back to continue the recording.

This event lit up a nationwide discussion on whether or not this exact sentence is a prejudice against women. So I am a woman, and I don’t like this sentence. I argued with my male friend on this. His claiming is “The professor should not have used this sentence to attack the author. But without any context, this sentence itself is not a prejudice. Men and women are different. Women do prefer arguing and they argue more emotionally than men, who usually argue more rationally. And the sentence is just stating the difference out.”

I can’t argue with him on that because I am an emotional person. I know I don’t like it but deeply inside my heart I do feel that women are more emotional. And not just me, not just my friend, a lot of people in the society feel the same way. They wouldn’t say it out loud and they do have the same stereotype. And I feel that these stereotypes, not just those against women, but all stereotypes will exist more or less unless we enter a utopian world some day in the future. Act it out or not, say it out or not, differences exit. Don’t get me wrong on this, I am 100 percent sure that we should by no means do everything we need to eliminate discrimination, but, stereotypes are hard to eliminate, if even possible.

Now the question comes: should we do positive intervention in our education to make students not feel these stereotypes to improve their academic performance? Claude M. Steele says yes in his book “Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and we can do.” He thinks it is worth the risk of having these students unprepared for real world stereotypes. I like many of his ideas and appreciate his work on this. But I disagree with him on this specific question. Academic performance is only a part of one’s life. Many people will go through some type of stereotypes in his life and he/she should be prepared for this. Tell them the truth, but teach them to fight against the unfair. Knowing the evil does not mean accepting it. I would prefer that if I have a baby girl, she won’t say anything like “I feel like arguing with a woman” in the future, but she won’t be hurt too much to lose her ration by this kind of sentence either, because she is prepared, and then she can fight back.

Science Unplugged

Several weeks ago we had a communicating science workshop. Performing artists came and engaged us in a series of activities to help us improve our communicating science skills. I love these activities and do feel that they helped me to open up as well as the other future professoriate. There are a lot of things that teachers can learn from performers, especially when we do science outreach. To communicate our research to people outside of our field is a tricky task and needs performing techniques.

So I revisited the Alan Alda center for communicating science website and found this science unplugged live weekly web broadcast. This is a science show that delivers vivid and engaging presentations about scientists’ work. It even involves interactive communications between scientists and students. What is the meaning of doing research inside the ivory tower with no care for spreading the ideas and results? This science unplugged format is really a great idea.

I then searched online to see if there are other similar events about communicating science in a vivid way and found this Computer Science Unplugged website, which endeavours to talk about computer science without a computer! They are lots of activities, videos and a community that involves people who want to learn computer science in a diverse and interesting way. I love this!

Finally, another student in my pedagogy class wrote a great post on “lessons from broadway on how to create dynamic learning environments”. He even gave a list of “33 tips from established actors” that he believe, and I agree, could be used by teachers, too.

I hope we all can communicate science interestingly and effectively!

Is it just a “performance”?

When I was a TA for fluid mechanics, I was given the opportunity to give students weekly recitation. This 45-min class was usually divided into two parts: I will work through some example problems for that week’s topic first, and then followed by some experimental demonstrations that facilitate the students’ understanding of some concepts.

This recitation was optional. And the professor stressed that I won’t get too many of them, you know, just to make me less nervous. However, when I walked into the classroom in the first week, I got more than 30 students! That was two thirds of the class! I was totally taken aback by this for a minute, and then, without choice, I proceeded with caution and finished my first class.

It is amazing how teaching can get you addicted. Well, at least for me. I started to enjoy standing in front of the students and getting their attention. And inevitably, this feeling got me disappointed several weeks later, in fact, exactly the week after spring break, when some students were still in their holiday moods. I got only five students that week. I felt so depressed that I ran to the professor and asked if it was because the way I teach. Was it because I was a bad teacher?

He said:

“No. I don’t think so. Sometimes students got busy or they don’t feel like the need to attend a recitation this week. So you don’t need to be sad. As long as you think you are doing your best. This is like a performance. Your performance. You got prepared, go up stage and perform the teaching. No matter how many audiences you’ve got, it does not affect the way you teach. ”

I was convinced. This made me feel much better and I totally bought the idea of seeing teaching as a performance.

But is it really?

As I learnt recently, no. It’s better if we see ourselves as facilitators for students’ learning than as teachers. Teaching should not be a one-way knowledge indoctrination, but should be an interactive process. I still appreciate the professor’s saying that helped me to rebuild my confidence, but teaching is totally not a performance. We should, from some aspects, be cautious about our gestures, voices, and postures that can affect our communication, but we should never see the teaching podiums as our stages. Teaching is not about us. Teaching is about the students.

Online Ed: Teaching Millions or Making Millions?

MOOC, or a massive open online course, aims at unlimited participation and open access via the web. According to The New York Times, 2012 became “the year of the MOOC” because several well-financed providers such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX, which are in association with some elite universities such as Stanford and MIT, have emerged.

In the midst of applause and advocation of MOOC, a national faculty coalition– CFHE (the link takes you to its homepage), or the Campaign for the Future of higher Education — stands out and continues its anti-MOOC offensive. According to this article and the animation following it (attached in the end here), the coalition has several problems with MOOC:

  1. How does MOOC reach people without the internet?
  2. MOOC is currently a failure because 90% of the register students failed to complete. Research also shows that online students don’t learn as much as students sitting in a classroom.
  3. Is the “education for everyone” future just a sales page for MOOC? These anti-MOOC faculty believe that this is “too good to be true”, just like the financial housing loan that promises everyone a house a few years ago. Currently there are more than $65 million investigated in Coursera alone and around $1 billion invested in education technology. Venture Capitals come into play not because they care about education, but because they want more money back. Therefore, is MOOC’s purpose really “Teaching Millions” or just “Making Millions”?

Following the article are many thoughtful comments. People are arguing on this subject continuously. The pros say that MOOC at least offer those who cannot afford higher education an opportunity. The cons then argue that the quality of this kind of education cannot be guaranteed, etc.

I personally agree that MOOC does provide another option for higher education, but it is not mature enough for the society to recognize its quality. It is also a tool for businessmen to make money. However, if it proves to be indeed beneficial to education and the society, the fact that someone is profiting from it could not be a bad thing. To put it bluntly, the current higher education is totally non-profiting at all? No. But then again, it is always good to have some anti voices, to help shaping this subject into a better process.