Gatekeeping vs. Bad Teaching

Much of LiveJournal has been sunk in a sea of suck for the last couple of weeks, but there’s a really interesting discussion of science education over at “Faraday’s Cage is where you put Schroedinger’s Cat.” The first post has to do with the idea of “gatekeeping”:

In my class today, a very brief discussion occurred between the teacher and another student about a topic which has bothered me for a long, long time: gatekeeping.

This particular student is a grad student in mechanical engineering, and she was talking about her personal teaching philosophy. She said it bothered her that in the sciences and engineering there are often classes used as “weeders”, the principal being that the “unfit” are not able to survive the rigors of the fundamentals classes and will drop out before too much time and money has been invested by either party.

The teacher called this “gatekeeping”. It’s a concept with which I am familiar because, unfortunately, I’ve been on both ends of it. I also have a lot of mixed feelings on the topic, and it helped me to hear that this philosophy bothers other people.

The second is a follow-up in response to a comment, expanding on the connection between “gatekeeping” and just poor teaching.

It’s an interesting discussion. My own feelings on the topic are somewhat complex, in part because physics departments are often in the unenviable position of performing the “gatekeeping” function for other programs (pre-med and engineering). I think that there are a couple of different things going on here, and they can be hard to disentangle.

First and foremost, I agree with Cherish that a lot of what she describes in her second post is simply bad teaching. It’s simply inexcusable for someone teaching a class to completely blow off student questions, and the two styles of lectures she describes are, indeed, known failure modes for teaching science and engineering.

(As a faculty member at a small liberal arts college, I am obliged to note that this is what you get when you go to a place that prioritizes research over teaching. Small colleges, baybee!)

At the same time, though, I think there is a legitimate need for something like the “gatekeeping” function in a lot of disciplines. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching introductory physics to would-be engineers and doctors, probably more time than I’ve spent teaching physics majors. I’ve also seen a lot of those intro students graduate with majors in something else, usually for good reason.

Particularly in the pre-med track, but also in engineering, you get a lot of students who are trying to pursue those majors for the wrong reasons. They’re pre-med because their parents want them to become doctors, or they’re engineering majors because they did well in science classes, but engineering seems more practical. These students might have the raw ability to be decent doctors or engineers, but they don’t know why they’re on those tracks.

The proper “gatekeeping” function of the introductory classes is not so much to weed out the “unfit” (though there’s a bit of that), but rather to select out those who are really interested in those subjects from those who are just stumbling along with no clear purpose. Many of those weeded out by the “gatekeeping” classes would be fine doctors or engineers, but they might be great linguists or economists or historians. Part of the purpose of “gatekeeping” classes is to make those students stop and think about whether they’re doing this because they really want to, or because they think they ought to.

This is, of course, no excuse for driving people out of their chosen career path by really bad teaching. I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about a faculty member who gave three dreadful lectures in the first week of a class, and came in the next Monday to find the class reduced by a third. “Still too many,” he said, and gave three more dreadful lectures. The next Monday, with half the initial number of students, he completely changed styles, and was interesting and engaging for the rest of the semester. While it’s occasionally tempting, that sort of thing is deeply irresponsible.

The real trick to these classes is to balance three competing goals: to cover the necessary fundamentals for the upper-level classes, to force students to think about whether they really want to pursue this major, and to be engaging enough to help everybody in the class learn what they need to know. It’s not easy to get them all right at the same time, but they’re all valid and important parts of the educational process.

(I should note, too, that this problem is not unique to the sciences. My impression is that law school involves a certain amount of “weeding out” of students who are just wandering in aimlessly because they don’t have a very good idea of what to do with themselves.)