What Good Teachers Say About Teaching

One of a series of occasional excerpts from "What Good Teachers Say About Teaching," a collection of essays from 83 of the winners of Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award.

by James Leiby

I distinguish between formal academic instruction and other kinds of teaching. Formal academic teaching is structured in courses; a course is a device to prepare students for performances, usually examinations or essays, for which they receive academic credit in the form of a recorded grade. I plan courses by thinking about how to design the performance, how to measure it and how to prepare students for it by exercises or trials that establish explicit standards of evaluation. This planning is fair to the students and it helps me evaluate the success of the course.

As for teaching method, I think of an academic instructor at Berkeley as a professional student, an expert in investigating and reflecting on a subject. In teaching I try to demonstrate how a professional student--a scholar--looks at and responds to the subject matter. Since I am a historian, I try to evoke or at least suggest a vicarious experience. Because my subject is the history and philosophy of social welfare, my sources also lend themselves to other scholarly disciplines, such as literary criticism, philosophical analysis, legal reasoning and the various social and behavioral sciences.

In lecturing to large introductory classes, I try to minimize pedantic discussions of methods of generalization, so as to bring out the flow of thought and thinking about the subject. In discussion courses and seminars for more advanced students, I try to bring out the technical and analytical aspects of investigation, evidence and reflection. In conducting tutorials and supervising dissertations, I try to formulate the students' expressions of their interests and ideas in my own words, in the most sympathetic, clear and plausible way I can, and then, after we seem to understand each other, I criticize this formulation. This is like editing; it takes a lot of work and time. Some students don't like it--they feel pushed--but most students appreciate my taking them seriously.

My notion of academic instruction turns on an impersonal and academic discipline rather than a personal relation or personal growth, and on the demand of the course rather than on the interests and motives of the student. Academic education is not the only kind of education; but, I believe, academic credit implies academic course; academic course implies academic demands; and teaching, as academic instruction, implies a responsible and clear fulfilling of academic demands.


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