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The 21st Century Pedagogue

Robert A. Lue is trying to take Harvard's teachers to the cutting edge

Robert A. Lue has a full plate these days. On any given day, the professor of the practice of  molecular and cellular biology can be found working on projects in one of three campus offices or traveling the world as a spokesperson for the “Leading In Learning” initiative of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ ongoing capital campaign. Richard M. Losick, Lue’s co-professor for the popular course Life Sciences 1a, remembers a time when he could drop into Lue’s office at random to chat. Now, he says, it is “almost impossible to find him” on a whim.

Lue’s rise within Harvard’s growing pedagogical bureaucracy has been swift, and his increased prominence comes hand in hand with the University’s rapid, if uncertain, embrace of technology-informed attempts at innovation in the classroom. Since 2004, when he was appointed director of Life Sciences Education at the College, the popular biology professor has been named the inaugural faculty director of the Harvard Allston Education Portal, of HarvardX, and of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, respectively.

“I am a different type of faculty member,” says Lue, who is not a tenured member of the Faculty. “I like occupying a space that is sort of in between so many things, because it gives me enormous flexibility to explore.”

That flexibility, Lue says, offers the opportunity to set the pedagogical agenda for much of FAS, even if, as Lue’s colleagues say, it also carries the risk of getting lost in buzzword-laden generalities. At the highest level, Lue envisions a school that employs the rigor of academic research to understand how ideas are exchanged and breaks down many of the inherited teaching methods that have long dominated Harvard’s classrooms.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in capital campaign funding set to flow into the initiatives he oversees in coming years, that vision is poised to be put to the test, as Lue tries to make concrete a charge that is as unsettled as the technology it attempts to harness. In short, the man who colleagues call the archetypal 21st century professor is trying to lead a 377-year-old research university onto the pedagogical cutting edge.

‘A NEW HARVARD PROFESSOR’

Today, in addition to advising his own undergraduates, Lue oversees the tutoring of youth in Allston, the training of Harvard’s faculty and graduate student teachers, and the creation of massive open online courses broadcast to students around the world. But when he began his career at Harvard in the late 1980s as a Ph.D. student in molecular and cellular biology, Lue knew only that he wanted to teach.

Daniel Branton, a biology professor emeritus and Lue’s mentor, says the biologist’s proclivity for teaching was apparent early in his graduate years.

“Right from the start it was very clear to me that he would be a very good teacher; he just loved the profession,” says Branton, for whom Lue worked as a teaching fellow.

By his fourth year in the program, having served as teaching fellow for every semester, Lue taught his own seminar on HIV and AIDS. And after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard in 1996, he signed on as a lecturer in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, deliberately giving up academic research and the tenure track in favor of teaching–a decision that would define his career.

“You have to decide what it is you are going to emphasize,” Lue says, adding, “I realized, what I’d really like to do is to focus on teaching and learning and bring that same sensibility [of academic research] to the process of teaching and learning.”

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