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The bottom tier called out in this article are failing, above all else, because they lack a sense of place and purpose and instead make decisions marked by insecurity.

I have a whole lot to say on this issue so I'll try and keep it briefish...context, I'm finishing up my PhD in Engineering Education at a 'top tier' university. I also have a BS and MS in an engineering discipline.

Several friends in my program, as well as myself, have been applying for faculty jobs this year. Two of us have experience as technical founders, as working engineers, have prior experience teaching engineering, and now have PhDs in how to teach engineering well.

More than one teaching focused university has specifically told us that our degrees in teaching engineering are DISQUALIFYING to teach engineering at their schools. They will only take PhDs in that field of engineering. Those students, because of the nature of modern research universities, are often explicitly discouraged from developing teaching expertise - it distracts from the research their advisers need accomplished to get tenure there. So you have schools that produce future faculty discouraging them from getting the preparation needed for the majority of faculty jobs, and the schools that do the majority of teaching not interested in educational expertise.

One department head specifically told me during a phone interview they didn't see how a degree in how to teach engineering would be relevant to what they do. That school advertises that it's focused entirely on undergraduate engineering education, does not have graduate students, and rewards tenure almost entirely based on teaching performance. I pointed out that I had two degree in their discipline, worked as an engineer in the field for years, had already been teaching engineering before I returned to graduate school, and went back to school specifically to learn how to teach better. Silence. The last person they hired (who has become a friend/mentee of mine) went straight through from their BS to MS to PhD in a single engineering discipline. No teaching experience and no industry experience - but a PhD in the field.

The trend there doesn't just apply to teaching, it applies to research and to broader visions of what a university can or should be.

Really, summarized, the issues we are seeing are issues of strategy - but that is a dirty word at universities. The schools have all, teaching as well as research focused, managed to entirely divorce Schein's three levels of culture from each other. They have artifacts they use for promotion, tenure, and measuring the school's activity. Many have ceased to try and argue those artifacts are linked to the values that they espouse. They simply state they are linked and then stigmatize anyone who points out otherwise.

At many schools, the faculty pathologically fear losing input on governance yet are unwilling to contribute to running of the university in a meaningful way. They complain about perpetually rising tenure standards, but they are the ones enforcing those standards. Trying to engage in these discussions is a dirty word because that would require them to confront things outside of their bubble. Trying to individualize isn't within the capacity of the faculty because ongoing disciplinary ossification, narrowing, and inlooking. It also isn't in the capacity of the outside managers they bring in to run the 'business' side - because they don't have the foggiest understanding of how education works, and get stuck on traditional metrics for business success and solutions that prevent any real change.

Its easy to blame sports, and they sure don't help, but the culture of the way universities are run - lacking in any reflection, self-awareness, or broader world view. It isn't complying with title IX, but thats a convenient scapegoat. It isn't building nice dorms, that's a symptom not a cause. Each school looks up the ladder of rankings and then does their damnedest to make themselves look like the school above them. In an attempt to 'compete' they all actively commodify themselves.

As an academic I find it sad. As an engineer/entrepreneur I find it frustrating. As a citizen I find it actively dangerous. In the broadest sense, these aren't just problems of education, they are problems of a society that (on the whole) seeks a black and white understanding of the world and seeks an education system that reproduces what it thinks it wants, rather than what it could be or might need later.




That must be incredibly frustrating. I'm actually doing a PhD myself (in ECE) but I recently decided to get my MS and take a break to work in industry. My end goal is to get a PhD however. But I hear that the transition from full-time to grad school is pretty challenging. What were the issues you faced, if any?

I think one of the biggest issues in faculty hiring is that research experience and a strong publication record outweigh any form of teaching experience.

But this doesn't make sense at all, simply because ~30-50% of a full faculty member's time is spent teaching (including prep time, office hours, etc). More importantly, the fact that you have a couple of publications in top tier conferences does not imply that you know how to teach!


>>That must be incredibly frustrating. It's more disheartening for how I look at my field than personally frustrating. One of my favorite anecdotes from this whole process is that, in parallel, to hearing that line of logic from multiple schools I had two different startups express interest in hiring me for technical positions. It has continued to validate my own belief that I'm a reasonably credible person who is well prepared to do what I want to do for a career...the people doing the hiring just can't separate their own beliefs from what the needs of their organization are. It's funny because that is exactly identical to the results of a study we recently published on why engineering students struggle with design thinking - they can't separate their own subjective reality from a shared objective one.

>>I hear that the transition from full-time to grad school is pretty challenging. What were the issues you faced, if any? Its...interesting. The big issue was ego. I'm sure I have one I'm not super aware of but I make a really itnentional effort not to talk out my ass. I sat in a meeting where people were describing the 'needs' of engineering employers. No one in that room besides me had ever worked as an engineer, hired an engineer, or managed an engineer. But because I was a grad student they didn't see my input as useful. That pattern, of role based power supplanting all, is commonly used. It is also a pretty strong indicator of competence - those who use it are less likely to be so.

I would add that adherence to process (but not formal process, always implicit process) is hugely valued in my experience. Even more so than when I worked in manufacturing.


Here's a hypothesis... When you have top school's materials online, it makes no sense to go to a second tier, or n-tier school other than for the networking. And by definition a 'n-tier' school is not going to be all that great at providing networking opportunities.

Would you take a machine learning course from an unknown, likely outdated professor when you could listen to Andrew Ng for free?

What the internet has brought is a 'winner takes all' for education.


I DID take a machine learning course from an unknown professor. One he was just doing as a fluke! It was incredible. I went from having zero background in Statistics or Machine learning, not even really understanding what they were, to applying several different techniques to exam large, million row datasets, using tools I had zero experience with, as well as learning how to interpret the results and avoid statistical pitfalls like overfitting and misinterpreting things.

Compare this to when I tried to take an AI class online offered by stanford, and I had to drop it because it was impossible to grok.

The difference? One professor actually taught, and the other simply wrote inscrutable symbols on the board and expected you to interpret it yourself. When we informed the professor on our lack of requisite statistics background, the unknown one simply adjusted his lessons to introduce the necessary concepts, while the Massive online course simply required a thorough background in probability to watch even the first few lectures.

Independent learning can kind of scale, in half-hearted ways, but actual TEACHING does not scale. Real teaching requires one on one effort.

I went to a low tier university because I had zero chance of getting actual access to an MIT professor, and the local ones were good enough to teach me everything I needed to have a real chance in the field.


I think this is a little narrow but perfectly valid. People get all squingy in my program when I bring up the idea of what value a college or program creates. They assume I'm being arch-capitalist about it.

The schools don't create value for students because they are bad at teaching. Having all the materials online is not learning, and its not good education.

But, the fact that students can create a better learning environment themselves than can a faculty member who knows the content and works at a university teaching the conten should be shocking.


Counterpoint: Ng's Coursera machine learning course is outdated now, unlikely to ever be updated, and focuses on applications of old algorithms without teaching the underlying fundamentals.


appeal to theory: The issue with education is rarely the currency of content. To assert that models education primarily as an information transfer process, which it isn't...or at least shouldn't be.


thanks for sharing this. people need to hear this more. perhaps write up a Medium article that can make its way around to a journalist. pleas continue to fight the good fight. we need more people educators like you. god speed


It's one of those things I'm regularly 'warned off' doing stuff like that because the biggest sin in academia is making observations about the emperors clothes. A friend an I have a draft of something that we plan to submit once we both have jobs.

Schools always want to hire 'collegiality' candidates...who get along with folks. They have warped the definition of collegiality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recuperation_(politics)) to mean doesn't buck the system rather than respectfully disagree in furtherance of a shared purpose.




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