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.”

Today, Lue considers education his field of academic-style research even if he does not have an education degree, and a field that he calls “remarkably challenging.” He treats his classroom as a laboratory and an early testing ground for the methodological experimentation he hopes to scale to the University-wide level–and, in the case of HarvardX, far beyond.

“[Students] are very different from yeast or cells growing in a dish that we can do stuff to and that generally behave in predictable ways,” Lue says. “Human beings in the context of a Harvard class are very complicated, unpredictable.”

This spring, Lue says he conducted an experiment in his class, MCB 54: “Cell Biology,” to challenge traditional course structures that score students based on a midterm and a final. Instead, Lue replaced both exams with six 20-minute “In-Class Evaluations,” or ICEs, spread out over the course of the semester.

“We discussed at the beginning of the semester the idea of changing the way students are examined from this ancient system where you tend to have a lot of focus on midterm and final,” says Vladimir Denic, Lue’s co-professor for MCB 54. “The idea is that a lot of students cram for those types of experiences and then their retention is not very high afterwards.”

Its results aside, the experiment is classic Lue, similar in objective to the globally successful cellular visualization his team created in 2006, which dynamically engages students to better understand course material. Lue’s commitment to the classroom—Losick says that Lue lectures from the aisles rather than talking down from a lectern—has translated to a well-remarked popularity among students and consistently earns Lue Q guide scores over 4.0.

Colleagues say projects like the cellular visualization are exemplary not only of Lue’s intellectual ability, but also of his ability to combine disciplines and find methods for improvement outside of the traditional professorial toolbox.

“Many of us, we burrow into our departments and our own research projects, and he’s wired differently,” says English professor Elisa New, whose course Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 12: “Poetry in America,” was adapted to HarvardX this spring. “He is able to see over time places where innovation is ready, is ripe to happen, and where he can be effective in coaching and nursing it along.”

‘LEADING IN LEARNING’

On an evening in the middle of April, Lue stood beside Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter K. Bol as he gave an interactive talk about Chinese folklore to a group of Allston residents gathered at the Education Portal. About 75 or so residents watched in the room, but Bol’s lecture was also broadcast live to HarvardX viewers around the world as part of a new initiative bridging the online platform and the University’s physical outreach efforts. As Bol delivered his lecture, questions streamed in from the both the audience in front of him and the one connected digitally across globe.

“We’ve seen from the very beginning with HarvardX that it’s an online thing, but we’re trying to encourage more in-person interaction to bring the community together,” Lue said at the event.

The night is just one recent example of how Lue is trying to bring together the various projects he oversees. Like his own classroom, HarvardX and the Bok Center each offer Lue both a venue for research and a venue to apply it. Data gathered from the thousands of students taking HarvardX courses around the world is folded into conversations with information from in-person evaluations of teaching fellows and techniques at the Bok Center. Lue and his team help make sense of the information and apply it to the Bok Center’s training programs and the HarvardX production studio.

"What Robert Lue practices, it's more like a musical instrument than a weapon," Classics professor Gregory Nagy said.

“It’s really all about learning,” Lue says. “How do you support learning in very different audiences, how do you use a variety of very different tools, how do things that you learn from the life sciences and approaches in the life sciences really sort of have cross-cutting impacts on other fields?”

In terms of his time, Lue says he splits his days between working with undergraduate students and advisees, helping faculty develop curriculum and courseware, and sharing programming ideas and materials with University outsiders in the world of higher education. And as an advocate for capital campaign initiatives, Lue is often pulled away from campus to expound on his vision for teaching and learning at Harvard.

Denic, who says he and Lue used to run through entire MCB 54 practice lectures for feedback before the semester began, says he thinks of his co-teacher as a “benevolent dictator,” who has brought a centralized vision of education to a diverse field of educators.

For his part, Gregory Nagy, a Classics professor whose course Culture and Belief 22: “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization” has been adapted for HarvardX, says Lue is not so much a “boss” as a facilitator.

“What Robert Lue practices, it’s more like a musical instrument than a weapon, the ability to coordinate the energies of such a wide variety of people as Harvard represents,” Nagy says, “[A] community that is diverse as Harvard is...takes a special kind of person to bring it about.”

But for all their praise, colleagues interviewed for this story had more trouble pinning down Lue’s role and the tangible implications of his vision. Lue himself describes his role as catalyst, visionary, executive, and leader at various points in two interviews, but ultimately settled on something like a “lead facilitator.”

“Someone who basically opens doors, that helps people think about what they need, that can think about resources and help the institution think about what resources are needed for innovation,” Lue says, describing his account of education research.

There’s so much in teaching and learning that we don’t know,” Lue adds. “It’s kind of a little bit of a wide-open landscape for exploration right now.”

STRETCHED TOO THIN?

Lue quite often spends his nights at an apartment he rents in Harvard Square instead of commuting 25 miles north of Cambridge to his home in Andover, Mass.

“Nights were getting extremely late,” explains Lue, who says that before renting the apartment, he used to spend nights at hotels in order to make 8 a.m. meetings with faculty members and colleagues.

The change evinces the increased workload Lue has taken on in recent years. As his titles have accumulated and the scope of his projects has expanded, Lue says he has kept his roots in the classroom.

Of course some folks say ‘You're completely nuts,’” Lue says. “Life is intense. Harvard is a place where we live maximally.”

Though most of Lue’s colleagues interviewed for this story say they are confident in his ability to steer one of FAS’s most attention-grabbing endeavors, some wonder if his leadership is sustainable. Lue himself projects that the Bok Center will more than double the size of its staff and open an additional outpost in Allston with funding from the FAS capital campaign.

“One person can be spread too thin,” says Chair of the Committee on General Education Edward J. Hall. “Maybe he has enough energy to handle these things fine, but that’s obviously a general worry, not just particularly about Rob.”

"Do I feel spread too thin? Some days yes, but who doesn't?" Lue said.

Lue himself acknowledges that the workload can be challenging.

“Do I feel spread too thin?” he says. “Some days yes, but who doesn’t? You also have to think about balance. What is the personal investment and sacrifice that you need to make in this?”

Still, Lue says he has no plans to relinquish any of his positions.

“You have to realize that you don't do everything,” Lue says. “There’s an organizational framework for how these things work, where you have sort of a series of tiers of basically, an organizational structure that allows you to do your job.”

For Lue, having this structure in place for the various organizations he oversees means he is not limited by the particulars of any one class or discipline and can connect ideas and tools already in use with those made available by emerging technology.

“I create a primordial soup, rich complex, nascent ideas and, from that, hopefully I foster,” Lue says, his rhetorical tone characteristically aloft.

—Dev A. Patel contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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