Radical Innovations in Pedagogy: A Conversation with David Helfand, Columbia Astronomer and Educator
How did you arrive at Columbia?
I came 40 years ago this week, directly from graduate school. I had four opportunities when I got my PhD. Three of them were to continue doing more or less the same thing I was doing at the time, and the fourth was to do something quite different. And that was to move to Columbia and start working on a project that would become the first x-ray telescope. First time we had a real telescope in space that could see the universe the way Superman sees the stars. And as I say, that was 40 years ago this week, so I’m starting my 81st semester here—which seems like a long time sometimes, and sometimes not!
I did have a little diversion over most of the last decade, when I spent six or seven years in British Columbia helping to design and start Quest University, a radically innovative new kind of university. I served as president and vice chancellor for seven years out there, and came back here two years ago.
What do you mean by “radically innovative”?
Well, we had the rare opportunity to sit down with a completely blank piece of paper and say, “How would you design a university for the 21st century, and 21st century students?”—rather than continuing what people did in the 19th century, which is basically what all universities do.
Virtually everything was different. There were no departments, no lecture halls, no majors. We adopted the block scheduling system, so students take one class at a time, not six or seven. And we had a two-year core curriculum—so even exceeding Columbia’s example—that equally covered math, science, social science, humanities, and the arts. We created a different kind of place, and now lots of people are looking to imitate that. In fact, I spent the summer in the UK working on the first new university there in 45 years, which is going to be an engineering school, but is going to adopt many of the innovations that we developed at Quest.
Judging by your work at Quest, as well as your mentorship of Columbia students, it seems like you have an interest in pedagogy as well as in science.
I do. In some sense it’s an amateur interest, in that I’m not well-versed in the literature and the research in pedagogy.
As a graduate student, I never taught anybody anything, so I literally walked into my first classroom here never having taught anyone anything in a classroom before. And that struck me as sort of bizarre!
It sounds somewhat intimidating, too, depending on one’s personality.
Well, I should say that I started out in college as a theater major, and I fully intended to major in theater, so lecturing wasn’t so bad. It was sort of like a long monologue. But it struck me as sort of absurd that an institution of education would put in front of the students people who had zero training of any kind, either practical or theoretical, in teaching!
So I had to learn how to do this, and I did. But from that experience developed a long-standing interest in teaching science to non-science students. How can one do that effectively, what does it even mean to do it, and why do we bother?
When I got to Columbia in the 1970s, I was delighted to see that, unlike all the other major universities in the country, Columbia had maintained its core curriculum through the Sixties. On the other hand, I was simultaneously appalled that this “intellectual coat of arms” (as it was described in the university bulletin) consisted of seven humanities courses—zero math courses, zero science courses, zero social science courses. And, being young and naïve, I thought, “Well, I’ll just set about to change that. I’ll make up some math and science courses that everyone can take, and then we’ll have a true intellectual coat of arms.”
So, 27 years later, I succeeded in adding one semester to Columbia’s core curriculum—Frontiers of Science, which is now starting its 14th year. So the core now consists of eight courses, seven of which haven’t changed since 1937, and one of which is my science course.
So Columbia undergrads have you to thank that science is part of the core curriculum?
Or to blame! I put that at the top of my syllabus yesterday for my first class. I said, “This is all my fault,” so it’s clear up front that I’m responsible. If they don’t like it, that’s too bad!
You were an important mentor to Marcel Agüeros, who is now an accomplished astronomer in his own right and has spearheaded diversity initiatives for the sciences at Columbia and elsewhere. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?
Marcel is one of the few people I’ve followed from undergraduate school to faculty, so that’s been sort of a special relationship. In the beginning of his senior year at Columbia, he came to me because he had spent some time at Arecibo—the big radio telescope in Puerto Rico, where his father was from—and had some data and wanted to do a senior thesis.
That was the first time I’d met him. That was also the year of the Ethnic Studies hunger strike, which he was the leader of at Columbia. They made a tent city in front of Butler Library demanding an Ethnic Studies department. So Marcel was on a hunger strike, and I had these imprecations from his mother that we not let him starve to death!
By that time, I had been here more than 20 years and had sort of become a student of the way universities work (and don’t work). So I was trying to offer what advice I could as to what was a demand that was likely to be met. I had some interesting conversations with him about that subject. I think in that year I probably did more mentoring in that sphere than in the astronomical sphere.
Our paths kept crossing, and we kept in touch. He went to the University of Washington, and then he applied for one of these National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowships which require an outstanding research proposal, as well as what the National Science Foundation calls “broader impacts”—typically, those are in education or public outreach. And in Marcel’s case, of course, it turned into Columbia’s Bridge to PhD Program for getting more underrepresented minorities into PhD programs and the sciences. So I agreed to be his official mentor here, but I also spent a lot of time helping him on the Bridge Program because I think that’s an important effort.
Can you describe the Bridge Program?
It’s a two-year program for people that have undergraduate degrees already but need research experience in real laboratories—and of course we have a lot of those here at Columbia—and who need to fill in courses where their background is lacking. You get the kind of experience that, say, a typical first-rate Columbia undergraduate would get, so then they look competitive when they apply to a PhD program. If you come from a very large and not well-resourced state school, or a historically black college or university or other underrepresented minority-serving institution, there’s just no way you can get on that ladder. So this is a way to get you on that ladder. And it’s become a model for other programs—the American Physical Society has started funding programs around the country based on this model that Marcel came up with.
Another aspect of institution reform you’ve been vocal about is the university tenure system, which you have criticized.
I feel very strongly about that. This is totally independent of most of what we’ve talked about, but I developed this notion in graduate school, seeing what the junior faculty were going through. And this was in the science department—it’s much worse, of course, in the more politically-charged minefields of the humanities.
I have two principal reasons, both of which offend most academics—but I’m sorry, I think they’re true!
The first is that tenure is more used to deny academic freedom to those who don’t have it than it is to protect the academic freedom of those who do. Over the last 30 years, we’ve gone from a higher education sector that was mostly tenured and tenure-track faculty to a significant majority of un-tenured, non-tenure-track faculty. Now the majority of undergraduate students in the U.S. are taught by people who have no hope of ever getting tenure, and there fore have no say in their working conditions, or what the students get to learn, or anything else.
But my even more offensive reason, which really pisses people off, is that I think tenure attracts the wrong people into academia, in some sense. Because while most university professors are pretty smart, most smart people are not university professors. That suggests that there’s some filter which selects some small fraction of smart people and turns them into university professors. And I maintain that for a significant number of people, that filter is tenure.
What does that say? It says you’re taking the most risk-averse people, who want to just do whatever they have to do, walk on eggshells for six years so then they don’t have to ever get reviewed again for the rest of their lives. Whereas the most risk-taking, entrepreneurial, open-to-new-ideas kind of people go off into the rest of the world, where they don’t mind getting evaluated by their peers or others. While I wouldn’t say that characterizes the majority of the faculty at a place like Columbia, I’ve been to a lot of universities in this country, and it does characterize the faculty in a lot of places! And it does characterize some faculty here, who explicitly said to me that they wanted a position here so that they wouldn’t have to be judged every three years on their ideas, or their productivity, or something like that.
You refused Columbia’s offer of tenure?
Yes, I did. That was a very long negotiation, actually. It was very funny. The provost at the time was Fritz Stern, a very distinguished German historian, and a real nice guy. I had many meetings with him, because this had not happened before, and he didn’t quite know what to do! He said, “David, you don’t understand—tenure is not something that’s incumbent upon you, it’s something that’s incumbent upon the university!”
He said, “The analogy is, you can’t renounce your rights under the Bill of Rights!” And I said, “No, Fritz, but I can renounce my citizenship!” I had a comeback for that one.
I work under five-year contracts. I’m reviewed every five years—I have to write up what I’ve done for the last five years and what I expect to do for the next five years, and it gets voted on by my department and then by the provost committee.
So you were the first person at Columbia to refuse tenure?
The only person I know that had tried to resign his tenure was Wally Broecker from Lamont. He had done it because he was so pissed off that the university wouldn’t hire some brilliant young person because they had enough people already. So he said, “Well, I’ll give you my tenure slot back, and you can use that for this young person!” They didn’t buy that argument. Subsequently, however, there’s quite a few people on the faculty on six-term contracts. They’ve come up with various names for them that circumvent the American Association of University Professor rules in ways that only they understand, and I don’t care about.