Guest column by Jeremiah Keenan | Majoring in Wikipedia at the University of Google




Y o u we r e brilliant. You took 16 APs in high school and got fives on every one. You knew the SATs so well you could score a 12 on an essay without looking at the prompt. You won about six science fairs and divided your summers between RSI, PROMYS and a couple of internships. If the sky was falling you could hold it up, and if the world spun backwards it would correct itself at your command.

Then you took your first midterm for Math 104.

Now, the guy in front of you just lays his head down on his desk and cries. But you are a resourceful type. Your eyes burn into the sheets in front of you, searching for a word, a symbol, a collection of numbers that might look like something you remember from high school. After 15 minutes you figure out that the sheet was handed to you upside-down. That gives you an edge on the other students. And the class is curved fair and square (10-10-10-70) so you’ve got a fighting chance.

But by the end of the semester you’re struggling with calculus. It doesn’t have to do with your weekend routine; everybody knows you don’t use your liver to study (friends, it’s a science). It’s not related to the fact that you only sleep eight hours a week; primary insomnia is a catalyst for creativity. It’s something awfully elusive. So you ask an upperclassman. The answer: “Google it. Wikipedia will be at the top of the first page.”

Strange advice, but not always bad. Sometimes, after all, your teacher’s slides are copied from Wikipedia to begin with. A junior in biochemistry told me his professor occasionally had difficulty understanding his own slides. Curious, a fellow student copied a sentence into Google. On one tortuously precise and wordy slide four consecutive sentences came straight out of a paragraph in Wikipedia. They were made into bullet points for appearance’s sake, but content and order remained untouched.

My first semester of freshman year there was one section of Math 114 that was so bad it might have been improved by Wikipedia. I knew about five people in the class (one of whom took third place in the Mexican math Olympiad) and spent about three hours a week listening to them complaining about their professor. In the first half of the semester he reputedly completed about three problems correctly. Most of the time he made a mistake half way and then gesticulated through the rest of the problem, “So change this to that, replace these symbols with their inverse, carry through with the correct answer, and any questions, OK good, next problem?”

My friends fumed that they were learning nothing that semester, but they really had no reason to feel bad. In point of fact, there is no statistically significant difference between student scores on the mathematics diagnostic test before and after taking the standard calculus sequence! (The “Active Learning” program originated, in part, from this embarrassing fact.)

All this seems shocking until you find out what it means for Penn to be a research institute. If a professor gets a $1.6 million research grant, perhaps $600,000 of it goes to the university. That kind of money speaks much louder than a bunch of disgruntled f reshmen. Furthermore, tenure is linked to research performance — not teaching ability. As far as incentives are concerned, your teacher is a research scientist who works as a part-time proctor.

Now, there is a place for intellectual inquiry outside of profit-driven industry. But research at the University of Pennsylvania should not marginalize teaching. I know some dedicated teachers at Penn who do great research. They deserve a raise. But there are also professors who do great research and don’t teach. They should be identified on Penn Course Review and dumped on the job market. After all, your parents don’t pay $60,000 a year so that you can read textbooks and type your questions into Google.

Jeremiah Keenan  is a College freshman. His email address is jkeenan@sas.upenn.edu.

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