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Extending and maintaining borders in university teaching

This article was originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Borders and boundaries are issues we negotiate every day in our lives as university teachers. We asked four Vanderbilt professors — Sherra Kerns, Marshall Eakin, Richard Haglund, and Howard Sandler — to tell us how they deal with borders in their teaching, from the borders between themselves and their students to the borders between academia and “the real world.”

CFT : How do you go about educating engineers for the “real world”?

Unlike most other undergraduate programs, when students of engineering graduate, they are called “engineers.” Engineering is a professional degree — one of the few undergraduate degree programs that produces students ready to enter a specific profession. As such, engineering education must provide not only a fundamental understanding of the discipline, but also prepare a student to enter the practice of engineering. How do we do that?

Engineering education crosses the boundary between the academy and society. During their undergraduate careers, engineering students must become familiar with the principles of engineering practice and develop a perspective on the engineering workplace. Engineers are society’s practical problem solvers. This means that they not only know how to solve problems, but they also know how to solve problems within the changing and varied constraints of cost, manufacturability, marketability, utility, and society’s priorities. Students must be exposed to the issues we confront in creating, maintaining, and replacing real products. They must also appreciate deadlines, product obsolescence, limited resources, and environmental impact issues. Finally, and most importantly, engineers must accept and value their ethical responsibility to society. Builders of systems intimately involved with the lives of individuals and the welfare of society must be well prepared to assume wide-ranging responsibility for their actions. For engineers, the ivory towers of academe must stand within clear sight of the complex, non-ideal offices and marketplaces of their professional future.
–Sherra E. Kerns, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

CFT : How does service-learning extend the borders of the classroom?

Service-learning extends the borders of the classroom for both students and teachers in profound and powerful ways. From a pedagogical perspective, service-learning brings together both theory and practice. Students have the opportunity to put their academic knowledge to work in the concrete situations presented to them by community service work. Teachers benefit as their students see the knowledge of the classroom reinforced and brought to life by their experience in the community. The learning process becomes more vivid and powerful for both student and teacher.

Last May I took a group of thirteen students to Chile to work and learn in a small community in the northern Atacama desert. For four weeks they read, wrote about, and discussed readings on Chilean history, society, and culture. At the same time, they lived and did community service work at a high school whose students come largely from Aymara Indian communities in the Andes. These Vanderbilt students had the opportunity to connect their academic readings with total immersion in the society and culture they were studying. Rather than do this studying in a classroom on the Vanderbilt campus, their classroom became this small community–and Chile. In effect, this class was an ongoing 24-hour-a-day seminar bringing together both experience and academics, in a classroom with no borders. It was a very powerful learning experience for both teacher and students.
–Marshall C. Eakin, Associate Professor of History

CFT : How does team teaching extend the borders of the classroom?

The phrase “team teaching” describes a number of different classroom activities, ranging from lectures by a primary instructor with cameo appearances by imported experts, to shared responsibility for all of the instructional activity with two or more instructors always in the classroom. In any of these instructional modes, there are personal and opportunity costs which must be considered before deciding whether or not to use a team approach. However, it is possible in many cases to identify those instances where team teaching is beneficial in facilitating the most effective learning environment.

Team teaching is especially appropriate for the challenging task of teaching about subjects which are simply not the province of a single discipline, including, for example, the College Program in Liberal Education’s “Science and the World” requirement. A small group of Vanderbilt faculty have been working to address this educational dilemma by creating a minor in Science, Technology and Humanities Studies. The program has been funded by the Leadership Initiative in Science and Humanities Education of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In contrast to present practice, the core courses in the minor are taught by teams drawn from both science/technology and humanities departments. We believe that the idea of team teaching not only provides a higher level of expertise, but dramatizes for the students as few individual lecturers are able to do the ways in which deeply held points of view, based on radically different disciplinary foundations, can be integrated into a meaningful, individual synthesis. Such an integrated personal synthesis is the sine qua non for individual decision making, whether we are talking about voting for members of Congress who have an enlightened view of science and technology policy, or working to deal with local environmental or ethical issues related to science.

As to the impact of team teaching in this context on students, it is much too early to tell. There is certainly value in team teaching as a way of enriching and enlivening the classroom atmosphere. However, given the very real instructional costs of team teaching, there will always be hard choices to be made between increasing the class size of team-taught courses, and maintaining the discussion-friendly environment of the small seminar-size course.

Team teaching cannot be an end in itself; it should be used to maximize educational value. This suggests that faculty should be thinking about team teaching not only for those few courses where there are two instructors always in the classroom, but also where “guest lectures,” small panel discussions, and joint projects with other faculty can generate excitement, and intensity, and above all enhanced learning in the classroom.
–Richard Haglund, Professor of Physics and Astronomy

CFT : To what extent are the boundaries between teachers and students useful?

Boundaries are important in every relationship. They are particularly important in the relationship between teachers and students because of the difference in power between the two groups. I like to tell my advisees that they are here, in part, to learn to be adults and to learn how to interact with adults. They get to start down that path by practicing with me. If I forget where the boundaries are, then I lose the ability to be that “wise adult” at Vanderbilt to whom they can come for advice. In that case, I am no longer acting in a way that meets that part of my obligation to the University; i.e., my role as a good adviser and mentor. For instance, I find it problematic for a professor to be giving personal advice and counseling to a student who is in his or her class. In short, to misquote Robert Frost, I believe that good boundaries make good universities.

I believe that it is the teacher’s (i.e., the more powerful person’s) responsibility to maintain the boundaries when dealing with students. I don’t think that this necessarily has implications for whether students call professors by their first names, or by some other title. My students all call me “Howard” in class (although I do find it interesting that some of those same students will call me “Professor Sandler” in other public settings); nonetheless, I have no trouble making it clear that my first responsibility to them is in my role as a professor at Vanderbilt University. I have had to explain to students that I can’t give them a “B” just because I happen to like them. I often treat students to lunch, but don’t allow them to reciprocate until they are no longer students (they usually insist on reciprocating as they are about to graduate). In short, there are lots of little things that a professor can do to help the students keep the boundaries in mind. The basic issue, again, is that it is the professor’s responsibility to do so.

There are similarities and differences in the boundaries required between professors and undergraduates and between professors and graduate students. The chief similarity is that the power differential remains large. Major professors, for example, have enormous power over graduate students. The chief difference is that major professors for graduate students are also responsible for socializing those students into the profession. This means that the appropriate boundaries are constantly shifting throughout the student’s time at the University because the student is in a continuous process of becoming a junior colleague. The rules are obviously different for junior colleagues than they are for graduate students.
-Howard Sandler, Professor of Psychology and Human Development