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Busting a myth about Berkeley’s Distinguished Teachers

Stephen Tollefson, former lecturer, College Writing Programs | April 22, 2010

How can we possibly compare a small humanities seminar with a large physics lecture, or an architecture studio?  The methods seem to be just too different, the way the content must be conveyed seems too dissimilar. For twenty five years, I’ve watched the Berkeley Academic Senate Committee on Teaching ask these questions as they begin looking at dossiers of those nominated for the Distinguished Teaching Award.  And to my mind, there is actually an answer that’s not so very deep or complicated.

First, let’s bust a myth. Great teachers don’t get there by simply being entertainers.  They may incidentally be entertaining, but their concern is for the material and the students, not for showmanship (I wish there were a gender neutral word for that)

All great teachers are enthusiasts. They not only love their field, but they want others to experience that joy. As we see in our awards this year, even dirt can be exciting in the right hands.

They have students, not an audience.  That is, they make an effort to see that the people in front of them or around the table are thinking, doing, learning. They notice confusion on faces, they solicit questions, they ask questions.

Each class period is an act of creation.  Even if the mode is lecture to a large group, something happens that is different, not a static recitation of facts or ideas.  A friend recently described a particular class session on campus as being like a symphony, the professor bringing in themes, reiterating, connecting, and then bringing all to a finale.

Class for these teachers is only part of teaching.  I’ve never heard of a Distinguished Teacher who was hard to get a hold of during office hours, or who didn’t go out of the way for students, more office hours, review sessions, advice and mentoring. As students say time and again, these people don’t just teach an area, they affect lives.

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in “As Good as It Gets,” they make you want to be a better teacher.

Comments to “Busting a myth about Berkeley’s Distinguished Teachers

  1. Professor Tollefson, one more reality check, in addition to those you have addressed in this post, is that the academy fails to deal with is that as long as scholars continue to refuse to interact with the general public the more irrelevant academies are becoming to the general public.

    QUESTION: Why do we think we are so smart, yet do so many stupid things that create increasing threats to our civilization?

    Is one reason because individual scholars tend to specialize too much in too few areas of knowledge, fail to deal with or even understand the big picture so much that they are too easily overwhelmed when the entire system goes into failure mode because they are culturally myopic and self-centered?

    The way it looks to increasing numbers of us outside the Ivory Tower is that anyone who dares to challenge the goals of those within the academy risk exclusion, or worse even within the academy itself.

    Meanwhile, we keep proving that humans are the most viciously territorial animal on earth since we reached the top of the food chain, so we do whatever we want even if it leads to our destruction in the process. We keep failing to deal with a most important neuroreality that there is a constant battle waged by our amygdala to dominate our newer prefrontal cortex, and we are failing because of it.

    So the general public becomes more and more skeptical or angry, doing more thinking about the value of maintaining academies that are not meeting the challenges of change.

    I strongly urge you to rethink your cultural values, but experience keeps proving that the Ivory Tower culture will continue to refuse to deal with the mundane needs of the humanity.

  2. I had hoped that our Berkeley Blog would open the closed windows in the Ivory Tower, produce conversations between professors and the public, and give voice to the many who have ideas and insights that could help improve the conditions for all of humanity.

    Too bad the conversations haven’t really started yet between “Us” Ivory Tower elite and “Them” unwashed/untenured public like myself.

    Far worse, education was supposed to be the bedrock of American Democracy and we are sinking because our democracy has become corrupt, dysfunctional, destructively divisive, threatening to We The People, declining and falling, while destroying the legacies and opportunities produced by heroes and patriots from the Revolution through the Greatest Generation.

    Instead, during the last half century the fact is that our politicians and scholars have failed to deal with the challenges of change. Your rhetoric has not been matched by resolution and you have become detached from the needs of We The People that you were supposed to serve. The bottom line is that scholars and politicians became more attached to satisfying your greed-ism and elitism as your paramount cultural values.

    This era of destructive Us/Them dichotomies must end.

    Scholars and politicians must dedicate yourselves to leading us in the right direction again, producing greater cooperation, opportunities and quality of life for all by restoring the legacies passed on to us by many millions of American heroes and patriots who risked and lost their lives to establish and protect American Democracy and our system of education.

  3. UC has become irrelevant at preventing environmental, economic, social and political problems that are growing out of control over the last 50 years.

    It’s way past due time for a change in UC participation, communication and interaction with the public that UC is supposed to be dedicated first and foremost to protecting and preserving.

    Quality of life in California, as well as in America and around the world is threatened with becoming universally unacceptable while the UC Ivory Tower aristocracy sinks further into your “Let Them Eat Cake” mentality.

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