Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with James Genone: Finding Minerva

by R. Whittaker, Jul 23, 2018


 

 


A couple of years ago, I met a young man, Parthiv Shah, a student at the newly formed Minerva Schools at KGI. I’d joined a community table one Sunday afternoon at KarmaKitchen, a monthly event held at a local restaurant. As always, the community table was full of individuals with fascinating stories—locals and others passing through town. Friendly conversation among strangers was the order of the day. I was soon asking Parthiv what was interesting in his life. It’s how I first heard about Minerva. It wasn’t just because Parthiv looks like the young Krisnamurti that I found what he was telling me fascinating. As I recall, he’d passed up Harvard to attend Minerva. He explained that each student, would live in several different cities (choosing from San Francisco, Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei) as they complete their coursework. In short, my conversation with Parthiv left me with an exciting picture of this new school, and I was  curious to learn more about it.
     As chance would have it, a year later, and again at KarmaKitchen, I met Parthiv’s father, Rajesh Shah who was visiting from India for a couple of weeks. Rajesh and I ended up having several long conversations over the next few days. (Later, I republished an article he’d written for a newspaper in Bangalore) It seemed some kind of connection was brewing along lines of its own. But as interesting as these two related events were, whatever was brewing might not have continued to evolve if it weren’t for a birthday party one evening a few months later.

     Lawrence Rosenthal had turned 90; this is a remarkable story, but for another time. However, it’s where I happened to find myself chatting with James Genone. I knew he’d completed a PhD in philosophy from UCB and had been teaching somewhere on the east coast. I wondered what he was up to currently. 
     “Well,” he said. “I’m working on curriculum at Minerva.”
      It was a short step from there to following interview…


Richard Whittaker:   Let me start by asking, how did you find Minerva?

James Genone:   It almost feels like Minerva found me. So here’s some context. Before I knew about Minerva, when I graduated from Cal, I had a postdoc at Stanford in a program called Introduction to the Humanities. My primary responsibility was teaching in their general education program, which all their freshmen take.

It wasn’t a full-time teaching load, but was more teaching oriented—most postdocs focus on research. This was an interdisciplinary program and we had a lot of autonomy as teaching fellows. We were encouraged to learn about and experiment with alternative forms of pedagogy, by which was meant alternatives to lecturing. Lecturing is the most common teaching modality there is. As my old boss at Minerva liked to say, “Lecturing is a great way to teach and a terrible way to learn.” As a student, you’re just sitting there passively.

I was very attracted to leading Socratic-style discussions, where I would call on students with a series of preset questions. These would have to be adapted in the moment to try to lead students down the garden path to a conclusion, but they were thinking it through themselves, rather than having me give answers.

That was a lot of what I experimented with there. I also experimented with putting them into groups to discuss a question together to see what kind of answer they would come up with as a group. So, that was a great experience. I was there for three years before I got my first professorship, which was at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

RW:   What did you teach there?

JG:   I taught a couple of courses in the history of philosophy. My main area was in the philosophy of mind, or epistemology. A lot of it was related to cognitive science, but from a philosopher’s point of view.

RW:   Maybe we’ll get back to that. But let’s talk about your first professorship at Franklin & Marshall.

JG:   I still was lecturing there. During my postdoc at Stanford, the class sizes were 10, 12, 15 students. In that context it’s natural to have a group discussion. But at F&M, I’d have 30 to 40 students in a class, and it’s much harder to do that. So I naturally returned to what I’d been doing, which was giving a lecture. Still, I’d call on students, and I’d give them tasks to have discussions among themselves. But often, I could see on their faces that they were lost. So sometimes I’d interrupt my lecture and ask, “Okay. What are you confused about?” Then it would come out. And after a year, I moved to Rutgers and was there for a couple of years.

At Rutgers, I decided to try experimenting with my teaching again to see if some of the techniques I’d used in my small seminars could be used in a bigger class. What I ultimately landed on had originally been tried in K-12. It’s called the “flipped classroom.” In the flipped classroom, what you would ordinarily do in class, like lecture—that would be homework. And what people would normally do for homework—writing or solving problems or whatever—you actually did those things in class.  
                  
RW:   How does the lecture work as homework?

JG:   Technology made it possible. The first few times I tried this, I made a set of slides in PowerPoint and recorded myself talking through the slides. I posted that as a video file on the course website, and they would download it and watch it. There was a quiz they’d have to take about the content of the lecture and on the readings I’d assigned. So, they’d come to class with all of that done. Then we’d have a much better discussion because they were prepared. I’d also give them applied tasks. So, I’d say, “Okay. Get your computer out and write a summary in bullet points of the author’s argument. Okay. Then come up with three objections to their argument.”

I’d walk around the tables, peer over people’s shoulders and give them feedback. I’d also have them read each other’s work and critique each other’s work. Then we’d have a discussion of what people had learned through that process. It was much more active and very dynamic.

The amazing thing was I kept all of my assessments the same. I always had them write the same essays I'd been having them write for these classes for years. That way I could compare their performance, and in particular, the change in their performance throughout the course of the class. When I adopted this active learning approach, I saw that they were learning better. Many, many more people were coming along for the ride. In the past, a few of the really keen students would do well, and the rest would be mediocre. 

RW:   Right.

JG:   But with this new approach, a lot of students were really getting it. So, I was very impressed by that.

RW:   That’s great. How long were you at Rutgers?

JG:   I was at Rutgers for two years. It was during my first year there when this really caught fire for me. I was applying for grants and trying to find other people on campus who were interested in this style of teaching.

RW:   You were excited about it.

JG:   I was very excited about it! In the meantime, I also had a research program and was publishing papers. In fact, I was doing pretty well with that. And my department chair kept saying to me, “Why are you spending all this time on teaching? It’s not going to help you get promoted or get tenure.” It’s a common refrain if you have a job at a good research university.

RW:   What do you think about that?

JG:  I think it’s really inappropriate that there’s so much focus on research at the expense of teaching. I mean it’s a school at the end of the day, and it should be a place of learning for the students. That should be the core mission, and it’s not the core mission anywhere—at a few places, maybe. Some places like Colorado College and some of the liberal arts colleges have kept that commitment—Swarthmore comes to mind.

RW:   Do you know Hampshire College?

JG:   Yeah. Hampshire College is a place like that. But when you look at the research universities, especially the big, public schools and the Ivy Leagues,there’s very little real institutional commitment to teaching, in my view. On the other hand, I understand that research is an important role of universities. And the system rewards institutions that produce a lot of research, and whose faculty’s papers are highly cited, with higher rankings. That helps them attract students and keep their revenue stream going.

But also, we’ve never made a great effort in this country to measure teaching effectiveness. In a way, research is one of the only ways we have to validate people’s effectiveness in some sense. People have objections to that, too. At any rate, you can see why it works the way that it does. But it doesn’t serve students at all.

RW:   It’s interesting to ponder how every stick has two ends. But say more about how Minerva found you. You were at Rutgers for two years, you said.

JG:   Yes. Around the end of the first year, I was starting to get disillusioned. It had always been a dream of mine to get tenure at a research university, where I would have a reasonable teaching load, and good support to do research. But I guess in the intervening time, my priorities had changed. I wasn’t finding many people on campus whose priorities and values resonated with my own, so I really felt alone in that environment. 

RW:   Would you say a little bit more about that? How your priorities had changed?

JG:   I think it’s what I said about getting very excited about the results I was seeing with the new approach to teaching I was undertaking. I was also doing a lot of reading at the time about other approaches, too. There’s a great book I read called Engaging Ideas. It was about how to use writing as a way of teaching just about everything. I was very interested in how my students learned through writing. There were things like that.

RW:  I can imagine how you would feel, seeing students open up and start thinking more deeply about things. When you multiply this thousands of times, it would be such a great benefit to the whole culture. And if we’re not doing that, then what are we developing, so to speak? With the focus on research projects taking such precedence over teaching, I can understand how you would feel that.

JG:   So much of the research that academics produce is not read by anybody; it doesn’t serve anything. On the other hand, you need a lot of people producing that kind of work, in order for just a few of them to make a big impact. So, it’s important that the community, as a whole, engages in that effort.

But I always look at the students. In all of them, even the least high-performing ones, you see this potential—the spark of curiosity, intelligence, and ability, whatever that ability may be—and you want to help them develop it, help them develop the ability to think and express themselves. I still feel that way.

I'm not really a teacher very much anymore, but I interact with the students at Minerva, and can’t resist the opportunity to give them some kind of feedback or encouragement, or support that will help them develop. 
               
RW:   And that seems so absolutely human.

JG:   Well, it was done for me. Frankly, I became a teacher because I had great teachers and those teachers helped me become who I am. I’m forever in their debt, and I felt that. I knew when I’d received something that had given me some new possibility. So I value that tremendously, and I want to pay it back to the world to the degree I can.

RW:   So, you started to get disillusioned at Rutgers.

JG:   Yes. And I started looking around. I knew there was a lot of innovation happening in K-12 education in the United States, largely through the rise of charter schools and independent schools, also. Much less so public schools, unfortunately. It’s much harder for them to innovate becuase of the focus on standardized testing. But I hadn’t heard much about people doing anything particularly innovative in higher education. Some isolated people at different institutions were trying to experiment with the flipped classroom model I mentioned. It wasn’t a massive effort, but I would talk to whoever I could about this subject.

I started going to conferences, where people were talking about these things, the future of higher education, how technology might change higher education. And I experimented with teaching a few online classes, which was a new thing for me. At the time, and it’s still true, almost all online classes were what we call asynchronous. That means there’s some material parked on a website. As a student, you engage with that material either at your own pace, or according to specified deadlines; you turn in your assignments and get a grade. There’s almost no interpersonal interaction with the instructor. I was able to get some decent results from that, but I was missing the interaction. It didn’t feel like even a remote substitute for the kinds of classes I taught in person.

So, I was exploring. I was seeing what was out there. And I was thinking about doing something other than being a professor, where I could engage with the shortcomings I felt there were in higher education. I wondered if there were other avenues to explore. I saw that some businesses were trying to develop online programs that had in-person components. I was also interested in access to higher education, because I’d taught at expensive places like Stanford and Franklin & Marshall. And Rutgers, by comparison, was relatively inexpensive.

The campus I taught at had a lot of nontraditional students—students who had had jobs, some had been in the military, some had children, they were older. A lot of them worked full-time, or at least part-time, while they were there. Even though they weren’t quite as well-prepared as my students at Stanford were, for example, or my students at Berkeley, I was struck by how much harder they worked.  And how hungry they were to have their education serve them in their lives.

So, I thought I’d be interested in trying to create more opportunities for students like that. Then I was having a conversation with a friend—she’s the founder and CEO of a great gap year program.

RW:   What kind of a program?

JG:  It’s a program for students who don’t go directly to college. It’s called Global Citizen Year. They travel to a foreign country—to Africa or South America or India—and they do some kind of development work in the country for a year. It’s an opportunity for them to mature and develop leadership experience, before they go to college. It’s a great program. A few of her students have come to Minerva actually, and they’ve been great.

So, we were talking and she said, “You know, all your crazy ideas about reforming higher education, there’s someone who’s working on that.” She told me about Minerva.

RW:   She learned about it somehow?

JG:   She knew about Minerva through a friend who worked there, so I got in touch. I asked him a lot of questions. What he said sounded pretty compelling. Then about two months later, I was at a New York Times education conference and, Ben Nelson, the founder of Minerva was a speaker, and quite by accident, I sat next to him at lunch.

RW:   Gosh.

JG:   We had a long conversation and I sort of grilled him about the model. He was generous with his answers, and I was pretty convinced it was the kind of thing I was interested in. 

RW:  Well, that’s interesting that you met him in person and had that direct experience.

JG:   Yeah. He’s an impressive person. He was a CEO of a tech company that was bought by Hewlett Packard. He had success as a leader. He’d had this idea of a different kind of university when he was in college, because he was dissatisfied with his own college experience.

RW:   That’s certainly one of the things somebody might want to know more about. Okay, here’s this guy who was a tech success. Now, he’s built a university. What does he know about it? He doesn’t have a background in the system, except for his experience of being a student.

JG:   Well, he did a very smart thing. He went out and hired Stephen Kosslyn, who had been the dean of Social Sciencesat Harvard. He’d run The Center for Advanced Study at Stanford. He was an incredibly influential cognitive psychologist. I knew his work well. I’d studied it as a graduate student and during my postdoc. So, when I found out that Kosslyn was the founding dean of Minerva, I thought, “Well, this is a serious place!”

RW:   It’s fascinating to be talking with you about Minerva, because I do have a very positive feeling about the place. I know the founder envisions a university that seeks excellence at the highest level and, apparently, that’s resonating with quite a few people.

JG:   Well, I've wondered about that myself, because you could make the argument that maybe those aren’t the students who need that help. Many years ago, I worked in a climbing and ski shop called Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley when I was a graduate at UCB. We sold clothing made by Patagonia and, at one point, as a perk, Yvon Chouinard came and talked with us. Somebody asked him, “Why don’t you make stuff that’s more affordable?”

What he said was, “We really try to make most of our clothing and equipment for people who are really going to use it in the most extreme conditions and even though ordinary people don’t need that level of quality, they recognize that it’s different from the mass produced stuff, and that’s what they want.” It’s that principle of, “I can’t afford to buy cheap stuff.”

RW:   He’s a fascinating figure. I've never met him, but I know that Doug Tompkins and Chouinard were very close. Tompkins was also a very interesting guy. But what was your take on Chouinard? 
         
JG:  My strongest impression of him is from reading his book, Climbing Ice, which was how I taught myself mountaineering.

RW:   You have a background in climbing and mountaineering?  
    
JG:   Yeah, before I went to graduate school, I spent two seasons as a climbing and mountaineering instructor.


RW:   Where?

JG:   For UC Berkeley. They have an outdoor education program called Cal Adventures.

RW:   High Sierras mostly?

JG:   Exactly. Some years before that, I’d been rock climbing for a few years, and had a group of friends. We were interested in climbing Mt. Shasta, so I picked up a copy of Chouinard’s book. After reading it, I took a group of people up to the top of Shasta.

I was really struck by his book. There was a clarity of purpose about what it means to be in the mountains and how one should go about it. That really resonated for me.  You got a feeling for what it meant to him to be in that environment, and to climb—and why that was important to him.

RW:   My former wife knew Doug Tompkins. He had a really deep feeling for the environment. I mean look at what Tompkins and Chouinard, have done. It’s incredible.

JG:   That’s right.

RW:   And I'm very touched by that. What are some of the high points of your own climbing and mountaineering?

JG:   It’s easier to talk about the low points than the high points [laughs].  
  
RW:   Okay. You can talk about them, too.

JG:   From a very young age, people always pegged me as a brainy, kind of nerdy kid. I always had my nose in a book. I think my stepmother used to say that my body was a carrying case for my brain. I was never a very physical or athletic kid. I actually loved to run around, and climb things, but I wasn’t good at sports. Then at the end of high school, I discovered rock climbing. Right away it was like, “This is for me!”

For seven or eight years, I climbed four or five days a week in the climbing gym. Then two or three weekends a month. I’d get out into the mountains, to Yosemite or Tahoe, or on some of the more local crags. I absolutely loved it. I was studying philosophy at Cal at the time, and as I went through graduate school, climbing brought some balance to that very cerebral life.

I grew up down the coast in the Carmel, Big Sur area, and had been backpacking and hiking since I was a teenager. I always loved an excuse to get out into the mountains, but climbing was a great way to be in the mountains. You were immediately up out of the fray. Like if you go to Yosemite, where it’s crowded with tourists, when you start climbing, after 15 minutes, it’s just you.

RW:   It’s interesting. One summer, I did a lot of day hikes up at Point Reyes National Seashore. There are many trails, but almost everyone sticks to just two, the Bear Valley trail and the Tomales Point trail. So I was by myself, practically the whole time. It’s incredible.

JG:   That’s really true. Yeah. Once you get about a half-mile out from just about anything, the crowds get a lot thinner. 
                  
RW:   I wonder, is there a metaphorical link here with what we’re talking about in education?

JG:   I don’t know. Say some more.

RW:   Well, mountains have always had metaphorical meanings. The gods lived on the highest mountains. And climbing has something of that instinctive hunger to get above where one can see clearly—getting closer to God, or closer to something deep in oneself. So, in a certain sense, it’s easy for me to link that with education—greater knowledge, let’s say.

JG:   Yes, I see what you mean. I think the way I’d put it for myself is I've always loved learning and I always try to put myself in a position to be learning new things. I love the challenge of trying to unlock some new subject matter or skill or something like that. There’s  struggle, there’s failure, and you have to get back up and dust yourself off and figure out how to do it again. Climbing is like that. You’re really testing yourself all the time. You need to know where your limits are. You need to know what you don’t know when you go to a new climbing area outdoors. Every kind of rock is different and has its secrets, and you have to find the right level where you can challenge yourself. But yes, there’s a lot of self-discovery in climbing, and it’s not just about getting better at it. It’s sort of about knowing where you are on a given day, where you can explore your limits and where, if you go too far, things can become unsafe in climbing.

RW:   So it’s a path towards a certain kind of self-knowledge, by necessity.

JG:   I would agree with that, yes.

RW:   And instinctively, I’d guess, people are attracted to the danger aspect of it, because it brings a great focus. In a way, it wakes a person up, and they feel more alive.

JG:   Another interesting parallel is that I've often had the experience of being on a long climb and being really focused on getting to the top. Then I get to the top, and spend a few minutes up there admiring the view, and then worry about getting back down before it gets dark. At the end of the day, I’m walking back towards the car and realize that I wasn’t really there. I didn’t really take it in, I just did it kind of mechanically.

And taking a class can be like that. I mean I look back on my undergraduate education sometimes and think, “Man, I was in some tremendous classes with some incredible professors and I overslept, I didn’t come to class, or when I was in class, I was doodling in my notebook and lost this opportunity. I’ll never get to be there again.” I think about that  a lot. I guess that’s true of a lot of different things in life—you can sleep through them.

RW:   I'm sure. It’s good you bring that up. So how does knowing that we can miss out by being on automatic come into play in your approach to teaching and pedagogy, and the role of an educational institution?

JG:   One thing I actually stumbled upon when I was at Stanford, is the importance of getting students to reflect upon their learning, to think about what they’re learning while they’re learning it. So I’ve done this for many years—and I encourage all of the faculty I work with at Minerva to do this—when I’d give a student an assignment back with a bunch of comments on it, then on the next assignment, I’d give them an additional prompt at the end: “Before you turn in this assignment, go back and look at the previous assignment you did. Look at the feedback I gave you and think about how you can apply it to improving this assignment. Write a paragraph describing that. I'm not going to grade your next paper until you’ve done that.”

I think it was very motivating for the students seeing that if they actually went through an exercise like that, their work tended to improve. The ones who didn’t do it, or did it superficially, didn’t realize that same growth. 
      
RW:   Okay. Let’s go back to your sitting next to the founder of Minerva and having a long conversation. What happened from there?

JG:   I applied for a faculty job there. That year, they only hired eight faculty across all the different colleges, because their founding class was only 30 students. Those students were, essentially, on pause for a year, until they could get more students. They realized they couldn’t offer a full suite of upper-level courses to such a small group. So, they were going to teach the same curriculum they’d taught the first year to this bigger group of students—about 120 admitted for the second year. They also learned many things from having offered their general education courses the first time, and they wanted to revise them. So, they hired me, not to be one of the faculty members, but to redo that curriculum, along with a couple of other people.

RW:   So, you went from Rutgers straight to Minerva, basically?

JG:   Yes. I applied and they reached out to me and offered me this job. Even though I was very impressed by what they were doing, I didn’t know if it was the real deal. I didn’t know how viable it was. So I got Rutgers to let me go on leave for one year, so I could work on Minerva’s curriculum. That was nice. So, I went to Minerva. Every freshman takes the same four courses, the Cornerstone Courses, introducing the core competencies we think every student should have, which are critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication, and effective interaction. We introduce these competencies by way of a set of learning outcomes we want all of the students to practice throughout their four years at Minerva. That’s why we teach this material first.

RW:   When you got there, were those four core courses in place or did you have a part in establishing them?

JG:   They’d been taught once and some parts were kind of re-fashioned. The course I inherited is called, Complex Systems. It essentially takes some ideas about complexity in the natural world—from biology and science, for example, and from mathematics—and tries to apply them to social interaction—a really interesting subject matter about which I only knew a little bit.

This idea of complexity comes up in cognitive science, and the study of the brain and consciousness—and things like that. But applying it to economics, political science, leadership and things like that is very new. It’s only been around for a couple of decades and is rarely taught to undergraduates.

RW:   Wow. So, this curriculum they began with, this very well-known guy you mentioned earlier, he developed that original…?    

JG:  Yes. with a small team. Stephen Kosslyn developed that set of ideas, and then they wanted to rework it on a number of different dimensions. They tried some things with the pedagogy the first year that didn’t work very well. So the class I created, it was 85% from scratch. I used very little from the year before.

RW:   And you arrived at Minerva how many years after they began?

JG:   Two.

RW:   So I presume you’ve had a lot of conversations with Stephen Kosslyn.

JG:   He was my boss for two-and-a-half years.

RW:   So, you really thought through things with him, I take it?

JG:   Absolutely. At the time I was redeveloping the Cornerstone Course, aside from Stephen and the academic deans of the colleges they were establishing, most of the academic team was very junior, more junior than me, and I’d only been a professor for three years at that point. But in those three years, I'd been on hiring committees, had been in the faculty senate and had been in subcommittees that dealt with curriculum in various ways. I also had this three-year postdoc. So, I was six or seven years into my career at that point, and most of the faculty we were getting were pretty much fresh out of grad school.

When I got there the only courses that existed were these four foundational classes, and we needed to build sixty-plus courses over the next two years as the upper-level curriculum.  So I developed a lot of curriculum. I had developed my own courses everywhere I taught and had contributed to redoing the philosophy curriculum at Rutgers while I was there. It was a big project. I had some experience and was able to fill a need there for thinking about how to do curriculum development at scale.

As soon as I’d finished redesigning the Complex Systems course, my next role at Minerva was director of curriculum development. I worked with one of the deans, Vicki Chandler, who is now the chief academic officer. She and I worked together on developing the framework for designing all of these upper level courses from business to computer science, natural science, social science, arts and humanities. We worked with the other college deans and a lot of the faculty who we’d hired at that point, and we’ve been growing a lot, so there are over 40 faculty now.

RW:   That’s amazing, and very interesting.

JG:   It’s really interesting. New universities don’t come along very often, so to be part of one starting from scratch has been incredible. I get to work with great people. We were lucky enough to get to work with Judith Brown, who had been the provost at Wesleyan. She’d been a dean at Rice University and is a tremendously accomplished person. She was our Dean of Arts and Humanities for about a year-and-a-half, and I got to work very closely with her on the philosophy curriculum.

I learned an enormous amount from Stephen Kosslyn. Vicki Chandler, who’s my boss now, she worked at the University of Arizona and was the head of the Betty Moore Foundation, which is a big science, grantmaking foundation. She has a wealth of experience and knowledge. It’s been a unique opportunity to get to work with people like this at this stage in my career.

RW:   It sounds fantastic. And how many years is it now, since you first came to Minerva?

JG:   Almost exactly three.

RW:   And you now have a new title, is that right?

JG:   Yes. A year ago, I became the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. I was the one person who had worked in all different parts of the undergraduate curriculum. My primary responsibility has been and continues to be our general education curriculum.

One of the unique things we do is continue to assess students on these general education learning outcomes for four years, and that’s not just unusual, I don’t think there’s another place that does it. Students don’t actually get grades on their freshman year courses until they graduate, because we’re continuing to assess them.

RW:   They don’t get grades on their freshman courses until they graduate?

JG:   That’s right.

RW:   Well, how does that work?

JG:   I'll give you an example. One of the freshman year learning outcomes is writing a thesis. Right? Every essay needs a thesis. In fact, writing work products of any kind needs something like a thesis. We don’t want that to be a small subcomponent that just gets lost. We want them to be able to see their own progress and how effectively they write thesis statements.

Every Minerva students gets to write a Capstone project at the end of their four-year study. It’s a year-long project. In fact, they spend a year before that figuring out what they’re going to work on. So, when they’re delivering their Capstone project, they better have a good thesis.  
      
RW:   Yeah.

JG:   So, we continue to give them focused feedback on how well they’re writing a thesis statement over these four years, and that’s tracked for them. We have a dashboard on the Minerva student website, where they can see their progress on all these learning outcomes that we introduce in their freshman year. They can see all the marks they’re getting as the years go by. They can see where they’ve progressed and where they haven’t progressed enough, and where they need to improve, and so on.

RW:   How many colleges are there at Minerva? I don’t quite have the nomenclature straight about how universities are organized.

JG:   Well, Minerva is unusual. We have five colleges, and those five colleges are actually what you major in. That could be business, computational science, arts and humanities, social science or natural science. Now, within each of those majors, there are what we call concentrations. And those look more like traditional majors—things like history, economics, philosophy, mathematics, and so on.

But we also have interdisciplinary concentrations as an option, if a student doesn’t want to major in sort of a more traditional disciplinary tract. If you major in social science, you can have a concentration that focuses on psychology, economics, and political science. In fact, you can focus on a specific dimension across those three fields. So, you can focus on theory, you can focus on empirical research, and you can focus on more creative applications. 

RW:   So Minerva is a work in-progress actually?

JG:   Absolutely. We haven’t graduated any undergraduate students yet. They’re going to graduate next summer.

RW:   And you’ve been there for almost from the beginning, how do you feel about it?

JG:   There’s nowhere I’d rather be. I mean nowhere. If Stanford came along tomorrow and said here’s a professorship, would you like to take it? I’d have to think about it for a few minutes, but I think I’d probably stay.

RW:   Would you like you to reflect on what’s needed today for college and universities if they’re going to really prepare students for this incredibly fast changing world? It’s a huge question, maybe an in impossible one, but I’m not sure how to frame it a more focused way.

JG:   No, you’ve put your finger on it, actually. Minerva’s mission is nurturing critical wisdom for the sake of the world. That’s their mission. Our founder often gives a thought experiment to audiences. He’ll say something like, “Think 30 years into the future, and think about the most influential, powerful people in the world; they’re making decisions that are going impact the fate of the world. Now come back to present time and think about what kind of college education you would give them. What would it look like?”

That’s the thought experiment he gave himself when he thought about building Minerva. So, one of the unique things about Minerva is that our students live in seven cities during their four years. So they travel over the world. They start in San Francisco, then, in order, go to Seoul in Korea, Hyderabad in India, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and then Taipei. Then they come back to San Francisco for a month at the very end.

So, they become global citizens. They live together in groups of about 150, and engage in civic partnerships, internships and various kinds of project-based learning in the countries where they’re living. They have a very demanding academic curriculum. I mean, there are no introductory classes at Minerva. We admit students who are prepared to undertake a lot of self-learning, to teach themselves things they don’t know that they need to know for their particular course of study. Nowadays, with the Internet, a lot of the stuff is available for free, so we don’t want to charge them for that.

Because we don’t have a lot of infrastructure, we don’t have sports teams, we don’t have libraries, we don’t have cafeterias. We essentially just have the housing.

RW:   You have housing in all these cities?

JG:   We lease it. Our students live all over the world and take their classes on a video conference platform with our faculty. The infrastructure cost is very low, which means we can keep the tuition very low; tuition is around $12,000 a year. We think they’re getting a world-class education for a fraction of the price of you pay for it in other colleges and universities.

RW:   It sounds like they’re getting, not only something that you’re calling a world-class education, but an education that’s unique. I mean traveling to these seven cities, I don’t know if there’s any other place out there doing that.

JG:   There are semester and year travel programs and sometimes you can go to a couple of different countries. I don’t know of any program where they make an effort to connect students to government, business and non-profit sectors in those countries, and give them learning experiences in that kind of a context.                
Another of Minerva’s unique aspects is the fact that every single class is active learning. There are no lectures at Minerva. Really, as Stephen Kosslyn always used to insist, “It’s practical, applied knowledge.” Students are always producing work that’s going to look a lot more like the work they’ll do when they have careers. In terms of academic papers, there’s some of that, but not a lot.

RW:   Would you say that one of the principles of the pedagogy at Minerva is to try to provide an environment where the instinctive desire to learn can flower? Would you say Minerva trusts that there is such a thing?

JG:   I think so, yes. We have a very special admissions process. We have to find students who can thrive in Minerva’s demanding environment that involves travel, and the lack of the traditional infrastructure of a college campus and so on. But I think at the core, both the students we admit and those we don’t, all of them have the possibility to learn, and develop, and to grow in the areas of strength they have—and sometimes, even in the areas of weakness. They can still grow to find their own capacity.

RW:  You went through UC Berkeley, undergrad and grad, right? You got a PhD. there.

JG:   Right. Then, for a little over a year, I was a mountain climbing instructor. After that, I started my PhD at Boston College and I got interested in the Phenomenological movement in Europe.

RW:   Who were the people there who intrigued you the most?

JG:   Husserl, Sartre, Martin Heidegger—people like that. And I realized I had quite a scientific bent. So, I started veering towards the scientific study of the mind and some of the more contemporary analytical, philosophical approaches. So I transferred back to Berkeley and finished my PhD there. I almost started over from scratch, honestly.

RW:   What was your area of focus for the PhD?

JG:   Perception. I started with a question about the relationship between perception and thought. I thought, well, most of our knowledge is supposed to be this abstract conceptual thought, but if we’re going to have knowledge of the world, it’s coming to us through perception. How do these two come to speak the same language? How do they communicate with each other?
I got fascinated by that, and it’s how I started studying cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. How can we ever be in a position to know anything about the world around us? This is a very old question and there have been a lot of answers to it over the years.
             
RW:   How has your study of perception opened up for you the broader spectrum of our perceptions?
              
JG:   Well, this is a bit of a long story. When I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies, I went to India. When I was in India, I started taking classes in Eastern philosophy at Delhi University—in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. I quickly decided this was exactly what I was getting in Berkeley, a kind of typical, intellectual approach. I wanted to get at an Eastern religious approach toward a different kind of knowledge, not purely intellectual knowledge. So, I dropped out of that program and started traveling around, staying in monasteries and going to various kinds of teachers and meditation retreats.

RW:   In India?

JG:   In India. That became a very important part of my life. Meditation is something I’ve continued to do since then. While I was in my graduate studies, studying perception—during that time period—I spent a fair amount of time going on silent meditation retreats, usually around ten days at a time. I’d go to the Spirit Rock Meditation Center over in Marin County and some other ones as well.

RW:   Did you ever do a Goenka retreat?

JG:   Yes. All told, I probably did six or eight different ten-day retreats during that time. It was very interesting to do that during this period when I was studying perception in this very intellectual way. I can’t say I came to any definite conclusions, but it was really interesting.

RW:   Fascinating. What do you see ahead for Minerva, especially in this very uncertain time with the evolution of AI and the prevalence of our digital devices with their virtual worlds. What do you think about this?

JG:   I think about it a lot. I had to completely extricate myself some years ago from social media. I don’t have a Facebook account, use Twitter, Instagram or any of those things. I believe the experience of the world that my social network was giving me was quite inauthentic. I worry for the generation that’s growing up with all of this, and for whom it’s just absolutely normal reality. We were speaking about perception of the world. I hope that what we’re teaching students at Minerva—in terms of critical thinking and how to consume media and information—will help them to be better citizens of the digital age in that regard. But I don’t know.

On the other hand, I think these students are the ones who will go forth into the world, and either go further in this direction of distortion, or hopefully escape the influences that could take them in directions that are not beneficial.

RW:   When one is rock climbing, one becomes very aware of the reality of the situation. Your rope breaks, or something gives way, you fall and you’re dead. It’s not a fantasy. One’s mortality is real. A video game can entertain you, but it’s not so easy to be conscious of the reality in which we actually exist. But speaking to a philosopher about reality is tricky.

JG:   Well, it’s a good word, reality. It actually gets at a different aspect of social media, which is people want to be connected. You understand why people use social media. They have relationship to people in their lives, who otherwise they’d lose touch with. I feel that. My wife is on Facebook, and she tells me what’s going on with my brother. She knows more about what’s going on with my brother than I do because of social media. There’s that hunger for a real connection with other people, and part of technology is the world has changed to make that more difficult. So, I think that urge gets expressed in that way.

When I think about our students, part of what makes Minerva’s use of technology work, is the fact that being on a computer actually becomes invisible. I mean, I've taught classes on our platform, and when you’re really in this world of ideas, and this world of practical knowledge, and trying to solve problems—when you’re really engaged by it, it doesn’t matter that the other person is in Malaysia or Africa or Europe. You’re having a conversation; you’re exchanging and learning something.

That’s a wonderful thing about technology. It can make a connection possible for people all over the world. We have to use it for good. We have to use it in authentic ways. Maybe social media can be like that. I don’t know. My experience is that people are curating a very manicured version of themselves to share with others. So, to me, it’s about authenticity.

The other part of it is—you spoke about out mortality. I try to remember that the opportunities I have, like talking with you right now, as soon as we’re done talking, it will be gone. And I tell my students that. I say, “Look, four years may seem like a long time, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. You’re never going to be at Minerva again. You’re never going to be in Hyderabad as a student again. You’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity. You’ve got to make use of it, because if you do, it will shape you, and if you don’t, then that part of your life just becomes nothing.”      
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.     

 

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