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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