S. Abu Turab Rizvi
Provost and Professor of Economics

Remarks given at the first faculty meeting of the academic year

As the summer drew to a close [President] Alison [Byerly] and I had a number of conversations in which the phrase, “magical thinking” came up. Not to worry, this is not the new administrative philosophy. The phrase came up in another context. For example, as much as I looked forward to the beginning of this semester, I indulged the thought that if I didn’t wear a blue blazer, my more summer-appropriate attire would conjure up a few more weeks of summer. It worked, kind of. It’s ten degrees warmer than it was a little while ago. But the semester started anyway. And I’m wearing a blue suit.

Faculty members, too, have wishful thoughts about extending the summer but, as the semester begins, they engage in another variety of magical thinking. They fondly wish that if they closed their eyes, that upon reopening them, magically, their students would no longer would be driven by a strategic approach to their studies. That they would not be motivated solely by grades, interested purely in ticking off boxes of requirements, and thinking that something was worth their time only if it was to appear on an exam. Instead, with eyes closed, we wish students would be truly engaged and motivated by the opportunity for the mastery, the beauty, the use, the meaningfulness, and the value that their academic work presents. That they would see the relevance of their work to their lives in a direct and not only instrumental way. In short, that students would have a particular attitude, a certain disposition, toward their learning.

I’ve called this contrast in student attitudes strategic versus deep in my writing. But the contrast can be put in other ways. We might use, for example, the formulation of Rakesh Khurana, Dean of the College at Harvard, who urges his students to see their educations as transformative and not transactional.

Let me use the rest of my time to say how we might encourage transformation, or depth, or engagement, rather than transaction, strategizing, or surface skimming. The key is to create what I’ll call an academic culture, a certain kind of community.

Much research shows that the same students can take a deep approach in one area, and a strategic one in another. And, further, and most important for us, that what we do in college affects student attitudes. To take an obvious example, if the way we assess student learning emphasizes reproduction and not depth of understanding, students will form attitudes that are strategic. The answer, then, is not just to get different students, or to wish that we had them, or to hearken back to a golden age when we did have them. It’s to foster different dispositions. And dispositions are affected by cultures.

An academic culture is the range of activities and ideas, beliefs, and values that are shared, transmitted, and reinforced within groups on a campus or on the campus as whole and that serve as a basis for behavior. This does not mean that an academic culture determines student behavior in lockstep; but it does influence it. As Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay, and Dave Perkins put it, student behaviors, “including their intellectual actions, are typically linked to the contexts they find themselves in, and learning situations are no exception.” So how can we affect behavior?

A passage from John Henry Newman, the great theorist of liberal education and of the residential college is very instructive. Some of you may know him as Cardinal Newman, or as the author of The Idea of a University. He said a lot of scary 19th century things. But this remains worthy of our attention. He writes:

The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. –John Henry Newman, The Rise and Progress of Universities (1872).

Instruction is of course important. The general principles of any study, Newman says, students should certainly have. And there are better and worse ways to instruct. But instruction can be had from books, or today, we might add, from MOOCs. What books and MOOCs by themselves cannot do is to encourage that learning to “live in” the student, to have it be more than a fugitive presence, available, perhaps, for an exam, but gone soon after. Newman suggests that in order for learning to take root you have to “catch it” from those in whom it lives already.

How does this happen? You become interested, you take the first steps into a community of practice. Interaction with those already in it solidifies your sense of belonging. You absorb the values and standards of the group, make them your own, and try to live up to them. And you do learn: you learn what people in that community know. As a result, you’re transformed from an outsider to an insider. You don’t just learn about poetry or engineering, you become a poet or an engineer.

Contrast this with what Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineer and CEO of EdX, the nonprofit provider of online classes started by MIT and Harvard, said two years ago. He says: “From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well.” “So just imagine, maybe we get the Hollywood actor Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” which is a result in electrical circuit theory.

But against this view, when you are attempting to introduce students to a culture, the identity and commitments of the teacher make “all the difference in the world.” “All the difference in the world” is the phrase that Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay, and Dave Perkins use in their nearly 25-year-old and absolutely essential discussion of academic cultures. When you are teaching a disposition valued by a community, into which you invite students to enter, and whose values and commitments you want students to come to hold durably, you cannot ask students to do as you say, not as you do. That is, you can’t be acting. They will sense the incoherence and – if they have no other strong cultural commitment countervailing – will view what is being asked as busywork. They will adopt a strategic attitude toward their learning, and not deepen their connection to a community of practice.

Several things follow from these ideas. We can see why we value having teacherscholars so much. Professors don’t just instruct. When they are scholars or creative artists in their own right they are able authentically to invite students into a community of inquiry. But not only professors are involved. Others in whom learning also lives, who have encountered it before and are members of a community of practice, such as speakers, practitioners and alumni often make it easier for students to establish a connection. The first step then is this initiation or building of interest.

Dispositional change takes time. It’s not a matter of a single encounter. We need ongoing interaction, the second step. All of the most successful programs that lead to academic engagement involve repeated interaction, not just a single encounter. The best writers on student engagement confirm this idea: Richard Light, Ken Bain, and, now, Dan Chambliss. A single lecture is not as valuable as a series of them. Or if it is a lecture, or a first-year reading, it is better embedded into a seminar. Or, if it is a seminar, it might be part of a course taken in common so there are further opportunities for interaction. And any of these could have a residential or experiential aspect. Seminars, musical groups, study-travel tours, work on long research projects, among many other programs have this same feature. They involve repeated interaction within a small group on a matter of academic interest. Students need to come to see, over time, the excitement of discovery, the nature of typical concerns, the ways of proceeding, the values that are favored, the standards that are looked up to, and much else that typifies the attitudes of a community of learning. They come to see that adopting these ways leads to a deepening of the interest that has been sparked in them. Interaction, that is, leads from initiation to transformation.

This approach asks us to change how we view our task in education. Since we are trying to change or deepen student dispositions we have to attend to the social setting of education and the emotional landscape of our students. To do so we need to do more than concentrate on instruction alone. We have to create an academic culture in which instruction is an important part but insufficient by itself. An academic culture that shows students others who have benefited from deep learning, invites them into a web of interactions that support this learning, and gives them the means to pursue it. Note also that instruction does not have to be in tension with initiation of interest and promotion of interaction. In fact, the best instruction incorporates those two ideas.

Employing this threefold framework — initiate interest, support interaction, and provide instruction — takes some real work, but it gets results. It allows us the best chance to make real what we might otherwise only be able to access through magical thinking. It allows us to truly make all the difference in the world. All my best wishes for the beginning of the year.