Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Say you are teaching a class, and only two students sign up...

This semester, there are a few modules with only a handful of students. There was one class that I wanted to attend but was told that that class was for a postgraduate program. And last I heard, there was only one postgraduate student registered for the class.

Whether one is a teacher, pastor, lecturer or any educator, it is always disheartening to see poor turnout at one's class. Imagine you organize a course on an important theologian of your denomination, and only two persons sign up. 

What would you do? Cancel the class?

Here's what John Stackhouse wrote:
In an autobiographical sketch (in the fine collection of Kelly Clark’s Philosophers Who Believe), Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff recalls his student days at Calvin College in Michigan. Once, he writes, he signed up for a course on Immanuel Kant’s difficult Critique of Pure Reason. Taught by a senior professor, Harry Jellema, the course enrolled just two students. Nicholas Wolterstorff was one.
Guess who was the other student?

He was Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest living Christian philosophers of our time. Stackhouse continued:
Wolterstorff delightedly notes that every student in that class has since been invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, defending the Christian faith. [...]
Harry Jellema, though, could not have foreseen any of that when he faithfully entered his classroom each time to teach just these two students. He simply wanted to teach anyone who wanted to learn.

At the University of Chicago they still enjoy telling the story of astrophysics professor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. In the 1950s, Chandrasekhar was living in Wisconsin, conducting research at the university’s observatory. The university scheduled him to teach one advanced seminar that winter, however, so Chandrasekhar drove eighty miles each way to teach the course on the main campus to—you guessed it—just two students. He could have cancelled it, but he did not.

In the subsequent decades, both of those students, and Professor Chandrasekhar himself, won the Nobel Prize. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, however, could not have foreseen any of that when he faithfully entered that classroom every time to teach just two students. He simply wanted to teach anyone who wanted to learn.  
This perspective on formal education goes against the prevalent attitude to see the importance of certain subjects based on how much money one can make from it through student registration.

Of course this does not mean education should be operated regardless of monetary profitability. Sustainability is non-negligible. And in the present system, monetary profitability guarantees sustainability. 

What this means is for educators to not lose heart if your classes are not popular. On sustainability, there is always a market for the niche.


Alex Tang said...

Thanks, Sze Zeng, this post is very encouraging to a medical and theological educator. For some reasons,students seem to have lost the love for learning and is interested to get the required credits for graduation.

Conrade Yap said...

This is the reality of the theological education world. For teachers, pay is low. For students, fees are high. Teachers do their utmost to teach subjects according to their calling, yet students prefer to choose subjects according to their interest, and these two do not necessarily meet. That is why theological education itself is an act of faith. No guarantee of students for teachers, and no assurance of jobs for students after graduation.

There is a 50% sale off John Stackhouse audio lectures now here.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex, I also find it hard to sustain the love for my pet subject. Cannot deny that there is not much money to be made from it. Of course, unless one is really so good in it, like all the big names authors.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kian Seng, at least in the college that I'm in, the fees are heavily subsidized by the college itself (from the coffer of the local supporting churches). So it is manageable for many people.

Wellsaid... "theological education itself is an act of faith". It's a niche market :)

Martin Yee said...

Sze Zeng,

Can't really put all the blame on students too. Some lecturers are real boring. Lack of good communication skills although they may have good content. Read that Luther, Karl Barth and Paul Althaus lectures are well attended as they combined substance with passion and good communication. Of course some are good communicators but their teachings are superficial or dubious.

I like the bunny/carrot cartoon


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Yes, I see that right here at my college. :)