LINGUIST List 6.1659

Sat Nov 25 1995

Disc: Teaching/ Learning

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. benji wald, teaching? learning

Message 1: teaching? learning

Date: Wed, 22 Nov 1995 22:43:00 teaching? learning
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: teaching? learning

I was fascinated by Steven Schaufele's sum on teaching, and remember
how the discussion started. At the time, I did not fell like entering
the discussion, since I haven't taught for a long time (I mean a whole
course), and I thought where the "prestige" lies was too obvious to
need argument or (note this!) explanation. However, Schaufele's sum
moved me and made me think about my own experience and perceptions.
It seems from the "private" stuff he mentioned in passing, there is a
lot of fear and pressure. Maybe that's why he didn't mention some
things that I think are worth mentioning. So I hope I can get to share
some thoughts I have about the topic with interested list members.

The simplest thing I can say from my own experience is that
researchers are simply continuing students that have nowhere else to
go (usually) but into teaching. Steven did mention this in some way,
but I have more to add. In my case, I was raised to be a researcher,
and was involved in research projects for most of my student life. I
didn't even think about teaching, only about continuing to LEARN --
learn things that were out there as well as what other people were
saying. I didn't at that point perceive any negative attitude toward
teaching -- and, in fact, as far as I could tell my teachers loved
teaching. They were teaching what they had learned, their own
research and what they thought about what other people said, and what
other people thought about what they said, and they were also learning
from the students, BUT they loved learning (new things). That was
clearly number one.

My first experience with teaching was painless. I was a teaching
assistant teaching one class a week so that the professor could do
something else (finish his diss I think). His notes were so good that
I didn't have much to do to prepare for the class -- and I didn't have
to invent the exams -- which later was the most painful part of
teaching for me, making up exams, so that I could find out if students
knew what I wanted them to know, but mainly so I'd have some basis for
giving them a grade -- which, of course, I had to do, and they
wouldn't like it if I didn't. Is there anything worse than having to
make up exams? I had them do little research projects instead
whenever I could.

When I was hired as a professor, my perceptions changed
radically. From faculty promotion sessions it immediately became clear
that teaching counted for very little, student evaluations were
marginal, especially if the research record and over-all the acclaim
of the faculty member at other prestigious universities (or by
prestigious people elsewhere) was great. It didn't bother me or
surprise me. As I said, I was raised to think that you're supposed to
do research, not simply to teach. What's teaching? Telling students
what OTHER people have done and think? (Yeah, I know, "Getting them
to think" is the high-minded answer, and anyway, my question is
rhetorical at this point in the narrative. I have a better answer

Anyway, it turned out that I was totally unprepared for teaching. I
had a diss to write too, and teaching was taking up a lot of time.
That's how it begins. But then it never ends. Germany is even more
severe, because you have to do a Hab, another dissertation, after 7
years of teaching, and then some other institution has to want to hire
you on that (or some) basis. Questions don't -- can't, according to
the system -- revolve around how's the teaching going, but when are
you gonna finish the diss (what it's about isn't even that important
to the system -- that I didn't like but there were seminars to talk
about your work in before the whole department, if I had enough nerve
to do it at that early stage -- I didn't. My socialisation leaves a
lot to be desired -- that's why I write.)

My unpreparedness for teaching extended to making syllabi. I had
never done it, and didn't know how to do it. In fact, I was lucky
because a student who came from a long line of teachers showed me how,
(Divide the chapters of the books into the number of weeks of the
course and inject your own stuff wherever possible. Why didn't I
learn that in Math? But it's so simple; why couldn't I figure it out
myself? So I did that, and then talked about what I wanted to. "You
know where you're supposed to be in the books, so here's what I want
to say today ...") And students (not all of them, of course)
generally taught me how to teach The only thing they didn't know about
teaching that I did was the content of what I taught.

As I was told, teaching got easier when the same courses came back
again. I had to update, but that was easy compared to the initial
syllabi I had to make. Also, other professors had sometimes taught
some of the courses I taught, the intro ones, and they made
suggestions and gave me their syllabi and book lists. I always had to
change them, of course, because I couldn't teach exactly what they
taught. First of all, I didn't have their notes, and even if I did, I
hadn't been to their classes so I could imitate their gestures and ad
libs, and second that would have been unbearably boring and I really
would have hated teaching if I even tried to do that.

I won't go into the whole story about how I got out of teaching and
into research with a little help from friends and enemies. That's
something I should really think about and publish in some form.
Instead, I'll go into what I realised about teaching when I became a
full-time researcher, but which no doubt many professors who remained
teachers already realised, but I didn't get (I'm a little slow).

As the creator and director of research projects I was very happy,
but a snag came up. Now I had to get people to do the research. It
was too much for me to do alone. So I had to get them, and I had to
TEACH them what I wanted them to do, and the more I could teach them
about WHY I wanted to do it the better it would be for the research,
for me and for them. So all of sudden I realised how I SHOULD have
used teaching. I should have taught them so I could LEARN more about
what I was interested in learning. In fact, when I thought back
about it, that's what my teachers had done with me.

Also, while I was a full-time researcher I would meet professors at
various conferences. I had read some of their work and ask them what
they had found out that was new since then -- in various ways, maybe
"that question you asked at the end of the last paper was really
intriguing. did you figure out an answer yet?" Most often they would
complain that they hadn't had time to pursue what they were doing,
"because I gotta teach. No time now. (Can't wait for summer)" They
sometimes envied me, but they knew my research organisation would
collapse sooner or later, while they had tenure. So they didn't envy
me that much....

In the end, I see the logic of the relation between research and
teaching as practiced in the universities -- not that it's entirely
satisfactory, far from it -- but that it's not a bad compromise IF you
can get the research grants to support your trustingly dependent and
HELPFUL students. As for the apparent repetitiveness of having to
teach "basic" stuff, I don't see that that's so different from having
to go all over (if you can) giving the same paper over and over again
to establish or maintain your reputation (except that the latter can
be more fun because there will usually be some high-level challenges
from somebody brilliant after you talk, but then isn't there always
somebody in the intro class that asks challenging questions too, even
if you dismiss it with something like "we don't have time to discuss
that. We'll talk about that in the advanced course, (if you ever get
to it.)" Of course, committment being what it is, by the time a
student gets to the advanced courses, grad style, s/he's more
interested in understanding and even anticipating what you're saying
and thinking than in challenging it. I'm kidding a little here, but
there's a grain of truth.)

The bottom line is that universities are about LEARNING, research and
teaching are only means to an end. The end is learning, certainly not
teaching, except when issues of immortality come up, such as who's
gonna continue to do this great stuff after I'm gone (maybe so that
I'll continue to be cited and paid attention to, or at least so that
what I did with a major part of my life will seem "objectively"
worthwhile -- this last idea is for those who don't have egos).

Well, at that level Winteler is now as immortal as Jakobson, but he's
"poor" Winteler because in trading his life for food and shelter he
didn't have the opportunity to LEARN more and more the way Jakobson
did. I ASSUME his own inclinations would have been to learn more than
he did, if he could have. And, if it matters, we remember him for
what he learned and shared, not because he turned on or off his
Gymnasium students, and certainly not because anything to do with
Einstein. What kind of intellectual caviar was that?? I understand
why he is not envied, though he may have made peace with his
situation. And, me too, I could have learned A LOT MORE about certain
things that interest me no end, if I had stayed in the university
system -- but then, I wouldn't have learned and understood a lot of
things that I have been exposed to and enjoy knowing and learning
because I am not in the university system. But then again I no doubt
see them the way I do because I have been in the university system. I
got to be a professor because I was good at being a student, not
because I was good at being a teacher. Can't we all say that? How
can all of "you people" forget to mention that a university professor
is just a student at the next set of levels; his students are lucky if
s/he's also a good teacher (and from what I said above, so is s/he).
- Benji
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