Conversations on Teaching

The fall of Mann

In the spring of 1964 I stood before a gathering of students and faculty at Rutgers University and reported the results of my senior psychology project. I had spent the previous seven months meticulously mixing concentrations of sugar solutions, keeping careful records of the rate at which 20 white rats licked those sweet liquids. My experiment had been successful, and I beamed as I showed chart after chart of my clear results, the details of which I have by now completely forgotten. But there was one thing about that day I have not forgotten.

After my presentation, several people approached me to offer support and encouragement, but one, Dr. Joseph Thanner, my venerable German professor through four years, simply smiled and said: "Mr. Duke, for this you gave up Thomas Mann?" As an undergraduate, Dr. Thanner's comment confused me-I had hoped he would be impressed. As a graduate student, his comment plagued me, as I questioned my decision to study behavior rather than German literature. As a young professor, it began to guide me, as I realized that in fact I did not have to give up Thomas Mann or any other thinker. And now, after more than a quarter century, I realize that his words have been central in my development as a teacher committed to the interdisciplinary study of why people do what they do.

Throughout my career, I have sought to have on my students the sort of impact Dr. Thanner had on me. But the dramatic effect of his simple comment always puzzled me as I continually tried to define this business of teaching for myself, and to determine when and how I am making a difference in the lives of those who hope to learn something from me. In its simplest form, my question has come to this: "When am I teaching?"

One good way to determine when I am teaching would be to examine all the things that I do and decide which of these things "count." A glance at any professor's calendar will, of course, always include classes. But it also includes planned and unplanned meetings with students, library work in preparation for class, reviewing and updating notes, designing and implementing research projects, analyzing data, writing journal articles and books, serving as faculty adviser to various campus groups, faculty meetings, dean's meetings, freshman seminar meetings and university committee meetings. Of these hours, I estimate that between 25 and 30 hours are spent in some form of direct student contact. But even this estimate doesn't explain Dr. Thanner's impact on me: his comment had occurred outside of the formal classroom setting.

It is in fact not possible to differentiate between time spent teaching and time spent not teaching, as if one activity is separable from the other by some observable, sensible or conceptual boundary. The Italian postmodern novelist Italo Calvino writes of a Mr. Palomar, who, like the observatory after which he is named, seeks a cosmic perspective on his world. Rather than look for the "good order" in the heavens, he searches among the ordinary and commonplace things right here on earth, like the grass in his yard.
Around Mr. Palomar's house there is a lawn. A lawn does not have precise boundaries; there is a border where the grass stops growing, but still a few scattered blades sprout farther one, then a thick green area, then a sparser stretch; are they still part of the lawn or not? Elsewhere, weeds and underbrush enter the lawn; you cannot tell what is lawn and what is weed. But even where there is nothing, you never know at what point you can stop; there may always be a tiny sprouting leaf that barely emerges from the earth, its root a white wisp hardly perceptible; a moment ago it might have been overlooked, but soon it, too, will have to be included."

Mr. Palomar's thoughts about the limits of his lawn helpfully reframe my question about when one is teaching. I now think that I am teaching every minute of every day, whether actively involved with students or not, whether they are still undergraduates or have already completed their degrees and physically left the campus. Teaching is in fact very much like Mr. Palomar's lawn-an infinite concept without true boundaries.

This is also true of the institution in which the teaching takes place.

Marshall P. Duke is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Personality
and Psychotherapy and chairman of the Department of Psychology.

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