1996 Award Recipients

Statements Of Teaching Philosophy

Lewis Feldman

Professor, Plant Biology
B.S., University of California, Davis and Ph.D., Harvard University

A cold, rainy, dark morning.

Lecture topic: The Algae.

A student stirs beneath her warm blanket and says, "Do I really need to know about Algae?"

I teach an introductory biology class with over seven hundred students. More than eighty percent of them are pre-med. Nearly one hundred per cent have no initial interest in plants and do little to disguise their feelings. The huge, impersonal lecture hall is a former movie theater, and the class meets at 8 AM during the depths of winter.

I delight in plants and I meet the challenge of drawing my students into the botanical kingdom as zealously as a missionary. I feel fortunate in my enthusiasm. "Why is this guy so excited?" my students wonder and it piques their interest.

To entice the "late-sleepers" I use a wide variety of illustrative material, including living specimens. We even have a coconut palm on stage. I use many 35 mm projection slides in the belief that the inherent beauty and originality of the plants themselves will intensify what I say. Many of my slides are of plants growing on campus, which reinforces the short exposure to the material in lectures and labs and gives the students power by being able to name the plants they see.

The ideal learning experience is the one-to-one tutorial, but the gauntlet thrown down to me is to teach hundreds of students at a time. My efforts go into trying to make each student feel "included." I encourage audience participation by asking questions or posing problems and I often involve students in lecture demonstrations. By their actions, the student volunteers make the demonstrations more spontaneous and thereby influence the content of the lectures.

The class, I feel, becomes more involved when all of us do a simultaneous examination of plant material. For example, the "handout" for the plant embryo lecture is--well, a peanut. Everyone gets one before the lecture starts. Until I hit on using unroasted peanuts, many of the students ate theirs before we reached the relevant point in the lecture. Now everyone holds on and a certain excited curiosity runs through the hall as we approach the moment of "peanut revelations."

My final attack on professor-student distancing is to visit ALL the labs (often a minimum of twenty-five sections). There I chat with the students, give them a chance to ask questions and compliment them or critique their lab work. It is during these visits that I get important feedback about my own teaching.

Despite the obvious obstacles, teaching these large classes can be effective and immensely satisfying. If I'm a missionary for plants, you can imagine my hallelujah when my students tell me, "Plants are fun."

Robert J. Full

Professor, Integrative Biology
B.A. and Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffal

My approach to teaching focuses on three precepts: convey concepts in context, not simply as a list of facts; development of critical thinking is a must; the division between personal discovery and universal discovery is artificial.

Basic knowledge of fundamental facts and principles will always constitute the essential building blocks of understanding. However, the encyclopedic method of instruction--listen, copy, regurgitate--is no longer adequate. With the greater pace of discovery coupled with increased usage of the Internet, too many rapidly changing facts now are immediately accessible. What will be valued in the future is how to think about and evaluate the data that we can get at our finger tips.

I firmly believe that the primary goal of the university is to develop a student's ability to think critically, and I aim for this goal in my teaching laboratory. For the first ten weeks students conduct experiments for which we do not give them all the variables. They must look to the course and original literature. Every four weeks students present their results in a seminar. For the last four weeks they conduct independent projects, studying the literature, formulating a testable hypothesis, designing an experiment and making actual measurements. Finally, they must present their results and conclusions in a seminar, taking a personal stand and defending their conclusions.

Such a critical thinking approach engenders both personal and universal discoveries. Obviously, this approach renders the division between teaching and research artificial. Students in my teaching laboratory get to taste the thrill of universal discovery. I have been very fortunate, too, to have a host of outstanding undergraduates in my research lab conduct truly benchmark original research, publish their results in the best journals and present their research at national meetings.

If this is the start of the instant information age, and critical thinking, evaluation and discovery are the skills of the future, then Berkeley's researchers should be in a position to lead the way. The processes of teaching and research are converging. Critical thinking approaches which use active learning with case studies and data analysis that capitalize on technology, such as virtual classrooms, virtual discussion sections, remote experts, bulletin boards for idea exchange, and distance learning, promise to make institutions like U.C. Berkeley worldwide centers for education in the future.

We must teach our students to think critically in every aspect of their lives, not just in science. We can't assume someone else will teach them. If a professor didn't excite me as an undergraduate, teach me to think critically and give me a chance to discover, I would never have been living a life-long dream of finding out how animals work. I hope to return this gift a hundred-fold.

Robert Middlekauff

Professor, History
B.A., University of Washington and Ph.D., Yale University

Nothing in my understanding of teaching and learning deserves the designation as a philosophy. But like most of my colleagues, I have thought a lot about my teaching and students.

My subject is the history of the English colonies in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the American Revolution (and I sometimes extend my period through the American Civil War). I have always found Berkeley students in my classes to be of a very high quality. My strategy for undergraduate courses entails careful planning (whether lecture or seminar), with a clear notion of overall purpose including what I hope will be taught and learned in each class meeting. I try to present an argument in each lecture in such a way that leaves important questions unresolved. I do not conceal my own conclusions, but I do attempt to present them so as not to close off different understandings. In undergraduate seminars or discussions, the trick is to be prepared for surprise and to use what students say to encourage further thinking and discussion. Quite often undergraduate perspectives on problems will be fresh and important, and worthy of development or challenge by the entire group. In such cases, I abandon my own carefully wrought plans, especially if such occurrences hold promise of stimulating student growth.

Graduate students are easy to teach. They need criticism but little stimulation: the subject turns them on. Perhaps the most important thing I do with them is to make suggestions--about their developing analytical abilities, how to develop fields of study (including their dissertation or projected books) and how to write well.

What do I hope that students of all sorts and levels will receive in my classes? First, some historical knowledge, a body of learning, and the skill and confidence to gain knowledge on their own. Good teaching liberates students from their teachers after all. Second, I hope that students' imaginations will be stretched and their natural curiosity nourished. Third, that they will grow intellectually and morally. The act of study and the process of learning should instill, one hopes, discipline and honesty.These are moral qualities. If knowledge is sought with discipline and honesty, the intellectual process is also a moral process; and following the intellect wherever it leads one is a moral act.

It takes a lot of ego to teach, but ego should not turn into egotism. I think that good teachers try to keep in mind the individuality of their students and try also not to get in the way of its expression. Teaching and learning are activities that take a lot of work. They also return much pleasure, indeed even joy.

Kameshwar Poolla

Professor, Mechanical Engineering
B. Tech., Indian Institute of Technology and Ph.D., University of Florida

I have been very fortunate.

Throughout my education, I have had the good fortune of being exposed to great teaching. I remember vividly having a crisis with fractions. When told that Jack ate 11/17 of a pie for breakfast, 2/3 of a pie for lunch, and a further 2/9 of a pie for dinner, and asked how much pie Jack had consumed in all, I was paralyzed. What kind of pie was this divided so strangely, how did Jack's mom let him eat pie for sustenance, and what awful fate waited those who flunked out of fourth grade? My mom sensed panic, sat me down, explained fractions, and restored my confidence--with clarity and patience. Though my mom couldn't quite work the same miracle with Linear Algebra, without fractions I would be in big trouble.

Often, I find students who know many things, but they don't know how these things fit together into a more complete body of knowledge. So every time I introduce a new topic, I relate it to previous concepts. I also attempt to draw examples from various disciplines to remove context from the concepts that have been taught.

I try to separate the ideas from the details. Details can be learned from a book, forgotten, and looked up again when necessary. The basic ideas, however, must be learned and retained. I begin each lecture with a brief summary of what we have covered previously and what we will be doing today. I try to test students on concepts rather than on calculation. I leave calculation and detail for homework.

I believe it is essential to encourage dialogue and participation in the classroom. As George Polya noted, "too often a lecture is the process where the teachers notes become the students notes without passing through minds of either." To make sure the students are thinking in class, I stop often to ask questions, make glaring errors in examples, and invite students to come to the board to solve problems.

Above all, I think it is very important to retain and nourish confidence in the student. Confidence, once stolen, is very hard to replace. So I work hard in extra office hours with students who may need extra help, and it is very rewarding when these students realize that they can solve problems just as well as anyone else.

It is truly a privilege to teach the excellent students at Berkeley. They are uniformly intelligent, diligent, and interested. When I prepare my lectures, I feel I must work as hard at explaining ideas as the students work at learning them. It is an obligation, but one that is full of pleasure.

I have been very fortunate indeed.

Rhona S. Weinstein

Professor, Psychology
B.A., McGill University and Ph.D., Yale University

Revising and implementing my undergraduate course in Community Psychology from an American Cultures perspective proved to be one of the high points of my teaching career. I was far from prepared for the powerful effects of inviting such diverse student body to join me as "fellow community researchers" in contributing to our understanding of the etiology and prevention of mental health/social problems, within a multicultural context. While I had expected racial tensions between groups and angry controversy over the curriculum, I instead found enormous respectÐfor each other, for the community voices students sought to bring forward and even, surprisingly, for the researchers who had ventured before them.

We were immersed in reading about community psychology as it applied to the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. For most students, it was the first time--"I recognize me," they said, some with tears. Finally, seriously grappling with the perspective of researcher, students saw the incredible challenge of understanding human dysfunction within a cultural context.

Reflected here are the three goals that I seek to meet in each teaching encounter: first, to excite students about the fit or lack of fit between theory, research evidence, and community realities; second, to demand that they become activists in their learning as "interventionists" and as "researchers"; and third, to create support and challenge for their learning through the identification of resources (peer support) and the requirement of accountability (reporting their findings).

But most importantly, I am relentless in setting the highest expectations for what each student can accomplish. I specifically gear my teaching toward the development of the best in each student, rather than the selection of "the best" students. I have seen too many of the casualties of lowered educational expectations--often women, certain ethnic-minorities, immigrants, and individuals with special needs and from lower socio-economic backgrounds. As I have discovered in my own research, positive self-fulfilling prophecies begin with beliefs about the capacity for each to learn.

I cannot help but be reminded that I too was often times the recipient of lowered expectations and closed doors--as a low test-scorer, as a woman, and as a mother with twin babies forging ahead with an academic career. Luckily for me, at each step of the way, there were significant teachers who provided alternative interpretations, shared useful strategies for overcoming obstacles in my path, and made brave interventions on my part. They continued to teach me, and in doing so, they opened doors--to the power of the mind and to unending opportunities for me to nurture my intellectual development. I have always felt privileged to join their ranks as Teacher.

Photographs courtesy of Jane Scherr