Talk About Teaching
by Philip M. Nichols
When asked to "talk about teaching," I find myself at somewhat of a loss. I try to be the kind of teacher that I would want if I were on the other side of the podium. But I find it difficult to talk in specifics about my own teaching, partially because it is so personal and partially because I find that teaching changes almost every time I enter a classroom.
Penn is a research institution. There have been fantastic institutional teaching innovations--Kelly Writers House, the College House system, math tutors in the Wheel, Management 100 TAs, and more--but Penn is a research institution. Most faculty come here and stay here to do research. Doing research rewards me personally, and I find my own research quite interesting. Others however, may have a different opinion about my research (they shouldn't, but they might). We are not directed in our research because there is no sure way of knowing a priori what is important and what is not. The formula tinkered out for fun by the professor down the hall last week may lead to her winning a Nobel prize twenty years from now. Teaching, on the other hand, is objectively and immediately important. We have been entrusted with directly influencing how people will perceive the world, how they will grow and change, what their futures may be--we even change the physical shape of their brains. So, even if Penn is a research institution, if I do not try to be the very best teacher I can be, I feel I am betraying that trust.
The best advice I ever received about teaching was to introduce myself. I got this advice from an undergraduate during my orientation as a new faculty person here at Penn; the then Wharton Undergraduate Dean, Janice Bellace, arranged for a group of new faculty to meet with a group of juniors and seniors, and one of the students in the group conversed with me before their presentation. He was not so concerned that people in the class know the teacher's name. His real concern was that the teacher "show the class that he is a person too" so that the people in the class would have some basis for relating to one another.
As far as I know, there is no formula for being a good teacher. My guess is that the best teachers are people who teach within themselves. I also imagine that every teacher who reads what I write will nod his or her head and say "yes, I already knew that," because all I have to offer is the simple advice given to me on my first day here. I write it nonetheless, if only to mark the simple truth that teaching is a relationship among people. It's not group therapy, but it is a relationship. In any given case it may be a good relationship or it may be a relationship in which the parties invest very little of themselves. But by its very nature it is a relationship. And if my father's advice on dating could be generalized to include the relationship of teaching, he would say something like "Be yourself. Do not be afraid to talk about yourself, but be honest, moderate and relevant. Far more importantly, be interested in the other people in the classroom. Ask them where they are from, what they are studying, how their day is going. And show them how that is relevant to what you are all learning."
The student who gave me the advice asked me to show that I was a person "too," implying that the students in the classroom are the people. Penn, for all its many strengths, throws up a few walls--even our undergraduate program is divided among four schools. Among the least productive divisions is the tripartite division of staff, student, and faculty. Indeed, the conceptions that some students have of faculty are pretty far off-the-mark. In the absence of a relationship, however, are faculty impressions of students likely to be any more accurate?
To get to Penn in any capacity requires extraordinary talent. Our staff, students and faculty are each very special individuals. It is neither self-effacing nor overly modest for me to realize that any time I walk into a room here there is a chance that everyone else in the room will be smarter than me. That includes the classroom. I am more experienced than they and have had far more training, but there is no scale on which the persons in my classroom are not deserving of my respect and admiration.
Personhood is a two-way street. I know that I am a person, but the person who gave me the advice did not seem so sure: he put the burden of proof on me. He asked me to introduce myself. Introducing yourself involves risk. I do not particularly enjoy talking about myself; I find it even more awkward when speaking to a captive audience. But the risk goes beyond privacy. Creating relationships within a large group of people increases your vulnerability. Continuing to invest yourself, making class personal, carries as much risk as investing yourself in any relationship. In my own case the technique has blown up spectacularly (fortunately only once, and fortunately only in a one-time seminar). I used to enjoy activities such as climbing, sky diving, hang gliding--now I teach. That is scary enough.
But teaching is important. We invest ourselves in our research. If we are willing to take risks with our research, if we are willing to hold our theories up to sometimes withering public scrutiny, if we are willing to try a variety of approaches and techniques knowing that some will fail, then we should be willing to do the same with our teaching. As an institution Penn has created some really innovative means of fostering intellectual relationships--but institutional innovation should not excuse us from personal experimentation or risk-taking, or from remembering that by teaching we create relationships.
Professor Nichols is associate professor of legal studies and Master of Stouffer College House.
His essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series, now in its seventh year as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 15, December 12, 2000