Monday, February 17, 2014

What you can do in a classroom-- And why there's room for a person in the classrooms

I have been thinking about what made the difference in my higher education, college and graduate school.  What mattered was the interaction with my teachers, and watching them talk or lecture or comment. Actually, a good fraction of the time, nothing much mattered, but when it mattered it was that person thinking about a subject.

I studied physics and did my advanced work in elementary particle physics. My teachers were of varying degrees didactic, but what mattered was watching them think and work out problems and explain stuff. You could learn most of physics from textbooks and doing problems, but what you needed to learn was thinking like a physicist. Now the Feynman textbooks convey that rather well, but I know of no other such textbooks in physics, at any level, that really teach you this. So I was stuck with my teachers (about 7 or 8 had or eventually received Nobel Prizes in physics). Watching them think is what I learned: how to think like a physicist about the world. I imagine that watching videos or movies of those lectures might have done the work, but often it was a matter of the less polished, more impromptu moves that made the difference.

I also had a heavy dose of the great books, great thinkers, in both literature and social science and politics. Again, what I needed to master was how to read and think about the world of imagination and ideas, of culture and society. Actually, my teachers were not in general so good at teaching me this, and it is only in my later years, ten to thirty years post PhD that I began to learn to think in the ways humanities scholars do. As for the social sciences, those that emulate something like physics, I can see what they are doing. If there is something more subtle, say fieldwork in sociology, my humanities training was what was crucial. Trained as a physicist I was never much diverted by people pulling out equations or models--for I knew that what mattered was the basic ideas about such--and I discovered that many of my colleagues in the social sciences were so involved with the formalism that the ideas escaped their consideration.

In other words, what mattered to me was to learn to think. I imagine that if I studied a field where substantive detailed knowledge was crucial, I would not have been very adept, and perhaps those fields benefit from distance learning technologies and other didactic methods. But if you want to learn to think, you have to watch people do it, and model yourself after them. And it matters if you are in the room with them, engaged with them, and having a sense of what is at stake.

I do not do much didactic teaching. I don't know what to teach. Rather I teach people how to think about matters of public policy and city planning, about methodology and reliable knowledge, about critical analysis of scholarly work. I can write down some rules. But what matters, I believe, is watching me in action, and having me take on a student's work and try to make it better.  I will discuss reading and try to give people a sense of what matters in the text we are analyzing. I will take on questions and try to see how the question relates to what we are studying. I am a performer, an intellectual performer, and I live and die by my ability to think.

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