An Apple for the Teacher by Julia Sommer

Teaching can be extremely hard work and a sublime experience. Those who do it best are honored by the university's distinguished teaching award, as is teaching itself.

Walking across campus recently, I saw a professor who had made English romantic poetry come alive for me in 1969--despite all the distractions of the time and of that time in my life. On impulse, I went up to him and told him how much his course had meant to me. Now an emeritus professor, he beamed with pleasure.

What makes certain teachers stand out in our minds? What is it that makes us recall, years later, the excitement of learning, the fact that we never (well, almost never) missed a class, the course that caused us to switch majors, the professor who made us finally and truly understand?

The Distinguished Teaching Award at Berkeley was created in 1959 to recognize and reward excellence in teaching. Since then, almost 200 faculty members have been honored. This year's awards, presented April 29, went to Lewis Feldman, professor of plant biology; Robert Full, professor of integrative biology; Robert Middlekauff, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History; Kameshwar Poolla, professor of mechanical engineering; and Rhona Weinstein, professor of psychology. The award is accompanied by $3,000 from the campus and an additional $1,000 gift from the California Alumni Association.

Among recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award are Pulitzer Prize- winners, presidential advisers, members of the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipients of the National Book Award, and Berkeley's chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien.

"I was deeply honored to be the youngest professor to receive a Distinguished Teaching Award (in 1962)," says Tien. "Some people believe that teaching comes as naturally as breathing. In fact, it takes years of hard work to learn how to be a good teacher. Teaching requires extensive preparation and endless creativity. Most important of all, teachers must be able to listen and learn from their students."

Nominees for the award are asked to write a statement about their thoughts on teaching. Eighty-three of those essays are gathered in the book What Good Teachers Say About Teaching: Essays from Berkeley, several of them updated for the 1994 publication. Reading them, no one key to good teaching jumps out. Rather, the exhilaration of dynamic teaching/learning seems to depend on the teacher, the students, the context, the topic, and the discipline.

"Often the success or failure of a class meeting depends on how accurately I have gauged the students' mood," writes English professor Julian Boyd, Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA) '93.

But on at least 10 points, recipients of Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award are in near or total agreement.

  • The teacher's main task is to guide students through the learning process, not to dispense information. "Teaching is not about imparting information. Teaching is about giving students room to learn how to think for themselves." (Herma Hill Kay, DTA'62, dean, Boalt Hall School of Law)

  • The goal of teaching is to help students read, speak, write, and think critically, and to expect students to do these things. "... I see it as one of my prime duties as a scholar-teacher to stretch [students'] abilities, open their eyes, and require of them as much as I think they can produce." (Mark Griffith, DTA'86, Classics)

  • Learning is a "messy" process, and the search for truth and knowledge is open-ended. "Just as in real life, my problems may have several answers. This irritates everyone; students want precise, tidy problems. But my job is to teach them how to take messy, vague questions and transform them into a precise model which can then be attacked." (Ole Hald, DTA'90, Mathematics)

  • Good teachers love their subject matter. "Here is my advice. Don't teach if you don't like the subject matter. If you love it, don't hide it. Wear your zeal on your sleeve, shout it, show it, sing it. The rest will take care of itself." (Richard Sutch, DTA'80, Economics and History)

  • Good research and good teaching go hand in hand. Students' engagement with the subject is enhanced by knowing about the teacher's own research, and interaction with students often gives teachers new insights into their research. "Presenting recent research in classes adds a sense that we are all still learning, not just reviewing knowledge." (Harry Greene, DTA'93, Integrative Biology)

  • The best teachers genuinely respect students and their intellectual capabilities. "I insist upon taking students seriously--seriously enough to argue with them, seriously enough to snap their heads off if they cannot show me logical bases for their assertions, and seriously enough to retreat in open confusion when they disagree with me and show me I have misunderstood the materials." (Stephen Booth, DTA'82, English)

  • Good teachers are rarely satisfied with their teaching--they constantly evaluate and modify what they do. "There is no room for complacency in teaching, and that's one of the things I love about it." (J. Keith Gilless, DTA'88, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management)

  • Good teachers usually had good teachers, and they see themselves as passing on their own teachers' gifts to a new generation of students. "For many of us, it was the special things that happened with teachers that shaped our paths to success. My aim is to offer the best that I was served." (Arnold Leiman, DTA'90, Psychology)

  • Good teachers treasure the small moments of discovery in the classroom and the more enduring effect they have on students' lives. "The capacity of a lecture, or even a few sentences, to turn a mind in a new direction is a marvel of human discourse." (C. D. Mote, Jr., DTA'71, Mechanical Engineering)

  • Good teachers do not see teaching as separate from other activities; rather, they see their lives as remarkably integrated. "The activity of teaching seems to me particularly blessed, for it allows me to spend my time with what I love and gives a oneness to my life that students value.... One might say that my business is my hobby--or that I have no hobbies. I am always working--or never working. Whatever the formulation, the result is a wholeness to one's intellectual, even one's physical life." (Anthony Newcomb, DTA'89, Music)

    Finally, wrote one professor, "Our teaching has been 'distinguished' only because of the high quality of the students with whom we have had the opportunity to interact."

    The Chosen Few
    Recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award are chosen by the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching, composed of five faculty members and two students. Generally, 15-20 faculty are nominated, from lecturer to full professor. Four or five are chosen.

    Recipients are nominated by their departments, and the process is arduous enough that a department must be truly convinced of the excellence of the nominee.

    The required dossier must provide a thorough examination of the nominee's teaching, including letters of support from colleagues here and at other institutions, current and former students, and the department chair; a summary of student evaluations for all courses taught in the last eight semesters; raw data from student evaluations in at least two courses; course materials, including syllabi, exams, and samples of student work; and a statement of teaching philosophy. Each finalist is observed while teaching by at least two members of the Committee on Teaching.

    "Dossiers are getting fatter every year," notes Stephen Tollefson, DTA'84, who coordinates the process.

    At Berkeley, student evaluations are collected at the end of every course. They play an increasingly important role in faculty tenure and promotion reviews. Sample comments:

  • "Perhaps the greatest joy of this class was the ways in which it extended beyond the classroom, affecting my beliefs, world view, and life."
  • "One lecture was so elegant that it gave me the chills."
  • "It's a credit to Prof. (X) that so many people come to his lecture at such a horrible time."

    In 1992, the $10,000 Educational Initiatives Award was created to complement the Distinguished Teaching Award for individual faculty. It is presented annually to a department, unit, or group of faculty that has created an outstanding program or initiative that "has had a sustained impact upon undergraduate education and can serve as a workable model for others on campus." This year's winner was the Center for the Teaching and Study of American Cultures.

    Outstanding graduate student instructors (GSIs) are also recognized each year in a program sponsored by the Graduate Division. Up to 10 percent of GSIs are eligible for the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award and about 15 instructors receive a $500 Teaching Effectiveness Award.

    Teachers Talk
    Talking with faculty members who have received the Distinguished Teaching Award belies Berkeley's reputation as a huge research university that shortchanges undergraduate education.

    Law professor Robert Berring, DTA'87, doesn't have to teach at all because of his duties as law librarian. But he teaches both undergraduates and law students because he loves to teach.

    "Teaching is my very, very favorite thing," he says, as students sit on the floor outside his office waiting to talk to him. "It's fun. It energizes me. I do my best thinking while I teach. If you're doing it (teaching) right, you should be learning with the students. Students at Berkeley are so bright and varied. They challenge you. They constantly bring different insights to discussions."

    Berring created the undergraduate course "Law & Society in China" and teaches it every spring. "It's a high," he says. "Only at Berkeley would someone from a blue-collar, Ohio family be teaching Asian-Americans about Confucius."

    Berring says that "teaching is a privilege of being a professor. One of the most important times of our life are the college years, when so many important issues come to a head. I get to relive those issues and that time every year with my students. The gift of being a teacher on a campus like this one is something to relish and appreciate. Sometimes it strikes me as amazing that this is actually part of a job; it is too much fun."

    Berring calls the Distinguished Teaching Award "my proudest achievement." And he echoes what many other awardees say: "Teaching is increasingly valued on campus, partly because Chancellor Tien has put such an emphasis on it. If UC is to maintain its position as a great public university, it must value teaching. We can't be 'above' teaching."

    English Department faculty have received more Distinguished Teaching Awards--18--than any other department. "Some people grumble that we prepare our cases better," says English chair Ralph Rader, "but we just have a lot of terrific teachers and the students say so. We value teaching and take the time to make the case."

    Rader notes that the Distinguished Teaching Award has become more important as a measure of faculty success. When he received the award in 1976, it was merely announced at an Academic Senate meeting and the award was a $50 gift certificate for books.

    College Writing Program lecturer Stephen Tollefson received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1984. He started teaching Subject A (freshman composition) while a graduate student in 1973 and just never stopped. He gave up his PhD studies in English to devote himself to teaching writing because "I love teaching. I probably shouldn't say this, but I like telling people what to do, especially when I think it's important. And I think writing is so important to keep a democracy functioning. My students like my class, I think. We have a good time, but I'm very demanding. I like to see them improve."

    Tollefson also works in the Office of Educational Development advising and training faculty on how to improve their teaching. "The notion that someone is a good teacher is becoming more important to departments," notes Tollefson.

    Alex Filippenko became a full professor of astronomy in 1992 at the tender age of 33. He attributes his quick rise through the ranks in part to receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award.

    He cites three essentials to good teaching. "First, you must have enthusiasm for your subject and show it, especially in large classes for non-majors. Second, you must be clear in your explanations so students actually learn and retain. And third, you must prepare your material very well."

    Filippenko says a good teacher also treats students with respect, answers their questions thoroughly, and encourages students to think for themselves. His goal: a scientifically literate citizenry. Filippenko agrees with the other award-winners that teaching is becoming more important at Berkeley. "There's a growing pressure in the state to justify our existence," he says.

    Paul Zinke, professor emeritus of environmental science, policy & management, was part of the first class of Distinguished Teaching Award-winners in 1959, only two years after he joined the faculty. At age 75, he still loves to teach, volunteering every summer for the two-month research camp in the Sierras required of juniors majoring in forestry. "It's enjoyable to be around students," he says. "They make one optimistic about the world. It's a vicarious benefit of being a professor."

    Asked his secrets for good teaching, Zinke, '42, says, "I was a student here once and I knew what I liked and didn't like as a student. The only reason we're here is because of the students."

    Zinke recalls that when he started teaching, he was an introvert. But that changed when he started talking about his fascinating experiences studying and mapping forests. "I could talk about real applications in the field," he says. "The world is an exciting place to talk about."

    A long-time researcher with UC's Agricultural Experiment Station, Zinke wants to make sure students don't go out and make mistakes in the field.

    M. Frances van Loo, DTA'85 and chair of the Public and Nonprofit Management Program in the Haas School of Business, has this to say about good teaching: "You must have a really deep knowledge of your subject and communicate it in an interesting, comprehensible way. And you must really care about your students and respect them as human beings. I try to bring people out and get all students involved in discussions. I let them know that I make mistakes too, and that decreases their anxiety.

    She adds, "I love watching students learn--the light breaking over their faces. I learn so much from them, freshmen as well as graduate students. I enjoy helping people find themselves in the world, conveying a sense of values. Teaching keeps me mentally alive because students often have a different way of looking at things. My mental response time has gotten much quicker. Teaching is also a way of giving back to an institution and a state that gave me so much as a student. And I love to see what students have made of their lives when they come back to visit."