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On teaching, distinguished teaching award nominees

Stephen Tollefson, former lecturer, College Writing Programs | April 20, 2011

This week, UC Berkeley holds it annual celebration of the Distinguished Teaching Award, which former Senate Chair Mary Firestone called “not the highest teaching honor on this campus, but the highest honor.”  This year, the recipients are Robin Einhorn of History, Phillip Geissler of Chemistry, and Kent Puckett of English.  They will be honored tomorrow, April 21, at a ceremony beginning at 4 pm in the Zellerbach Playhouse.  Open to the public, the ceremony is one of the great uplifting events on this campus.

As part of the selection process for the Distinguished Teaching Award, nominees write a statement about teaching–sometimes practical, sometimes philosophical, always insightful and wonderful.  Here are four of my favorite excerpts:

“The enduring ability of teachers, along with artists and writers, to disturb, disrupt, and inspire, even to change the course of history, is well-known. That legacy, unlike many legacies, is well worth preserving.” Leon Litwack of History, Distinguished Teacher, 1971.

“That, with my help, a sixteenth-century English poet can sing his verses to a twentieth-century Californian continually fills me with wonder.  There is for me, in such moments, a small, temporary victory over death.”  Stephen Greenblatt of English, Distinguished Teacher, 1983.

“As a teacher, I try to exemplify the qualities I seek to instill in my students–health, cheer, self-esteem, respect, compassion, and an awareness of the light in others.” Sunni Bloland of Human Biodynamics (Physical Education), Distinguished Teacher, 1990.

“Why should students try hard, and then harder, if their teacher is not doing the same, with passion and (this is so important) pleasure. I take my work to just a token of respect, both for who they are now and where they can go–which is always further.”  Kevis Goodman of English, Distinguished Teacher, 2005

(Most statements for the last twenty-five years can be found online at http://teaching.berkeley.edu/goodteachers/. They make for inspiring reading.)

What I like about these four statements (besides the fact that there is one representing each of the last four decades) is that however deeply personal each statement is, each also expresses something universal about the best teachers. Their concern is–certainly–to convey a given body of knowledge to students, but they are always concerned with something greater: how are the students thinking, where are the students going with their newly acquired knowledge, what kind of people will they be? Great teachers are not just great scholars; they are deeply humane. No matter how arcane the subject they may be teaching, how seemingly narrow or focused, they always see their subject and their students in a larger context: not the “A” grade on the engineering exam, but the next bridge built, not the excellent sociology paper, but the next stride in our war on poverty.

I have frequently heard our excellent faculty at Berkeley, in all disciplines, make it clear that facts are nice, but not the end-all of their teaching.  “Students can look up facts, if they need them later.  But I want them to know how to think in the discipline, to critique, analyze, and understand concepts.”  Time and again, teachers point out that the highlight of teaching comes when they see the light go on in a student or a class, because the students have realized something. A good class, then, is probably best described as a series of little epiphanies. Commenting on one of the recipients this year, a student said that the professor “talks about things that would not have occurred to me otherwise.” That’s clearly not the same as learning that The Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618. Wikipedia can teach you that fact, but you need a good teacher to help you figure out the significance of a few noblemen being tossed onto a pile of manure. What does it matter to us?  What can we learn from it?  Good teachers never forget the “learning” half of the equation.

If all this sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, well, I’ve been involved with the award and with observing campus teachers since 1984, and I am constantly amazed and heartened by the great teaching at Berkeley.

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