Thursday, October 27, 2005

A short tribute to teachers

Yesterday, my mentor for the first year writing class asked me how PhDs learn to teach. M (not his/her real name) is an English Education major, preparing to teach high school English, and thus in the throes of taking oh so many education courses aimed at teaching how to teach. Except that many of them are more aimed at teaching potential teachers about laws related to teaching on the state and federal level. M, it seems, has noted that I have a rather different teaching style. (I'm not quite sure what that means, but I hope it's good.)

Unlike high school teachers, college teachers, especially those from traditional PhD programs, are rarely taught much about actual teaching. My PhD program had a one term one hour a week "class" taught by one of the worst teachers I've ever seen/met, which was supposed to teach us how to teach (ahh, the irony of that poor instructor's life!). From that class, I took away one thing I use in the classroom. It's a useful thing, but worth the ten hours of torture it took to get it? After I'd graduated, my program moved away from that model and towards a mentoring model.

But by and large, PhD programs are research oriented. Students often TA, sometimes for many years (at least in the humanities), but most programs really try to get students to focus primarily on research and finishing their degree. Thus most of us learn primarily by watching other teachers, good and bad, and remembering the best/worst of our undergraduate teachers, and by just doing it. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we learn from colleagues, too.

M's question got me thinking about the best teachers I'd had, especially at the undergraduate level. It's been a goodly while since I did my undergraduate degree, with years off in other fields and a PhD program intervening, but some of my undergraduate professors still stand out sharply in my mind. I'm sure some of these folks are retired, but thinking about them makes me think about going back and thanking them. I'm sure I was a disappointing student in many ways, and I've certainly followed an unpredictable path.

Here are a few of the very best

Robert Rudd - Professor Rudd stands out in my mind for the clarity of his communication, even though I think that he found it difficult, and for his continued efforts to be a better teacher. When I was a student, he was at least mid-career, and yet he consistently taped his own lectures to listen back and try to improve them. He also gave pretty much the best office hours of any professor I remember because he always made me feel welcome. I was a fairly shy undergraduate (as in, I don't think I said a word in a class until I was a senior, and certainly didn't actually go visit a professor in his/her office hours until I was a junior!), and yet he put me at my ease, helped me ask better questions than I ever would have by myself, and helped me care about actually learning things rather than worrying about grades. He also told great stories.

Arthur Shapiro - Professor Shapiro was able to move from demonstrating complex math or genetics, to talking with a class about our lousy writing skills, to quoting Shakespeare with apparent effortlessness. He gave me an appreciation of and admiration for polymathy, and passed along a sense of the importance of the arts, something I was really missing at that point in my life. He taught me to think about the most basic assumptions made in the field; I think he taught me more about critical thinking in one course than I learned in my other undergraduate classes combined. I don't think any of the folks I'm listing here would look askance at my academic path, but I think more than any other, Professor Shapiro would appreciate the pleasure of it all.

Richard Cowen - The best lecturer I had as an undergraduate, I think, certainly the most memorable. I distinctly remember a specific class in which he did a coelomate worm impression, showing us how a hydrostatic skeleton works in worm movement. It was so good that for no other reason at all, I still remember what a coelomate worm is. Professor Cowen taught me to be fascinated by long dead things, things dead longer even than Shakespeare!

Milton Hildebrand - Another wonderful lecturer. Like Professor Rudd, Professor Hildebrand was probably mid-career plus when I took his classes, yet he gave the impression that he was committed to educating us, and he's still a role-model for me in that respect. Because there were so many of us in some classes, he said he felt he couldn't actually come around and teach us some of the skills we might want, so he invited us to come to his lab to watch as he did his work on several occasions. I took advantage of that once or twice (not nearly to the extent I should have; alas, the shyness thing). He was so precise without being prissy or obsessive, careful, respectful of his study and subject. Even though it's a world away, I try to approach texts with the respect he showed.

In my mind, these folks will always be Professor So-and-so. And I have a feeling I'd still be tongue-tied and in awe if I were to end up in the same room with any of them again.

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