A University of the First Class: Chris Kirk

On the occasion of the Alcalde’s 100th anniversary, we asked Longhorns what “a University of the first class” means to them.

A University of the First Class

Chris Kirk

BA ’95
Associate Professor, Anthropology

When I was an undergraduate at UT, it wasn’t just the material that made a course special—it was the interactions I had with faculty and students. I remember with great fondness my time spent in the physical anthropology lab examining primate skeletons with my professors and fellow students. I remember the thrill of debates in class on how best to interpret new discoveries in the human fossil record. Now that I’m a professor, few teaching experiences are more satisfying than leading a seminar with a talkative and intellectually curious group of undergraduates. Even in a large auditorium with hundreds of students, the best classes are those in which the students make eye contact with you and are inspired to ask thoughtful questions.

KirkHere in Texas, much attention has been given to the interplay between faculty research and teaching, with the assumption that great research and great teaching are incompatible. The major premise of this argument is flawed—teaching and research are not a zero sum game, and I believe that great research often inspires great teaching. Professors who are engaged in research have cutting-edge, firsthand knowledge of the subjects they teach. Students in turn get to learn from researchers who are actually moving their fields of study forward, and often have opportunities to get involved in this research themselves. For these reasons and more, universities of the first class cannot exist without first-class research by the faculty. After all, “research” is just shorthand for the process by which we learn new things, and encouraging learning is a core mission of all universities.

If first-class universities are partly defined by an energetic faculty member who is directly engaged with students and research, what should we make of the recent turn toward universities offering more courses online? Inevitably, online courses diminish student-faculty interaction. Only a flesh-and-blood instructor in the classroom can instantly redirect a lesson at the sight of furrowed brows, or ask leading questions that are carefully calibrated to the students’ level of understanding. Strictly online courses may even cut the professor out of the equation entirely, providing an incentive for cash-strapped administrators to cut faculty in order to save costs. I believe that universities of the first class must exist primarily in real space rather than in cyberspace.

Thirty years from now, I predict that first-class universities will be those that have “doubled down” on their human capital, and have most of their courses taught face-to-face by living, breathing faculty. After all, there is a reason that a degree from the University of Texas is worth more than a degree from the University of Phoenix. Don’t bet on this equation changing any time soon.

Read more takes on the phrase “a University of the first class” here.

Illustration by Sean McCabe.




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