First, a bit of background: earlier this month it was announced that MIT was removing from its web presence “indefinitely” the online lectures and videos by Walter Lewin, a beloved and revered professor of physics. Indeed, MIT’s newspaper quoted the Provost as saying that MIT was cutting all ties with Professor Lewin, including revoking his emeritus status. All of this followed from MIT’s investigation of reports that Lewin had sexually harassed a female online student, and perhaps others.
Like many members of the MIT community, I was ambivalent about these actions at first. I have always been absolutely passionate about eliminating the barriers to women studying and being successful in sci-tech fields; and as a member of MIT’s Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force I have had these issues at the forefront of my consciousness these past weeks. Still, as a librarian, I am also passionate about the need to preserve the historical record: Walter Lewin has been part of MIT for decades, and there’s something uncannily Orwellian about just “disappearing” his course content. (As I said to an alumnus, shall we disallow all reference to Charles Lindbergh because he was a Nazi collaborator?) At the end of the day, I was reassured to learn that Prof. Lewin himself owns the copyright to all his videos: they remain available elsewhere on the web. MIT’s action does not suppress this content, which remains accessible and which is undeniably superb (even I, a hardcore physics-phobe, have watched and enjoyed a couple of Walter Lewin’s videos!) MIT is simply saying that inclusion in its web space implies the school’s approval. “This is us – this is what we’re about” is the implicit message of making our course content available to the world, free of charge. That the personal actions of one of our very illustrious profs are considered unacceptable – that being an internet rock star doesn’t exempt you from the ethical behavior MIT expects from all of us – is rather wonderful.
But leave it to my former Random Hall resident to highlight some really important features of this story. Preeya has done a superb job of tying in a couple of elements that are of deep concern to me. For one thing, although she frames her comments in terms of the way physics is traditionally taught, I think her observations about teaching style extend way beyond just that one subject. You’re right, Preeya: this IS both a diversity issue and an educational issue. Educators at every level all around the country are increasingly aware of the huge range of learning styles. Some of the variance in both teaching and learning styles may well be gendered. Some of it is cultural (people from different parts of the world have different social expectations, and teaching/learning are social activities); and some of it is individual (people with different neurological or cognitive styles will learn differently.) Just as there are numerous learning styles, so too there are numerous teaching styles. Lecture works for some but just doesn’t do it for many; and as Preeya points out, struggling to master the material works for some, while others – legitimately – need to be guided and supported in that process. There is no single best way to teach physics or anything else; great teachers (and great institutions of learning) find ways to present the same material in a variety of ways.
We don’t just do this because it’s the right thing to do. We do this because diversity helps everyone. People from different backgrounds and with different ways of thinking and perceiving will approach problems in different ways: having the benefit of everyone’s perspective helps advance a discipline, an organization, and society in general. I think about this a lot when I visit elementary and secondary schools, too: what learning styles are best served by a school’s curriculum and instructional approach? What type of student would learn best here? When many people hear the phrase “gifted education” they immediately think of that happy individual who is able to thrive and learn well in a traditional educational setting. I, ironically, think of someone quite different: the individual whose intellectual flame requires something different, additional, or special in order to burn bright.
But Preeya, one thing concerned me about your post, and that was your describing yourself as “one of those women who leaked through the pipeline.” I hope you meant that to be ironic, or at least as a commentary on the pipeline itself and not on you. This statement is distressing in two ways. First, it pains me to think that in any part of your consciousness you believe that you somehow “slipped through” or got away with something. And second, it pains me to hear you describing any aspect of your educational or professional career in the past tense. As someone who is well acquainted with both you and with the pipeline, allow me to point out that you have two things in abundance: talent and time. You didn’t leak through anything. You’re a brilliant, insightful person; MIT was lucky to have you. And from my perspective, having celebrated my 60th birthday by finishing a master’s degree and launching a consulting business, that pipeline turns out to be a lot longer and a lot more nuanced and multi-dimensional than our society wants you to believe.