Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Teaching at Berkeley

By Stephen Tollefson

Today at 5 pm in Zellerbach Playhouse is the campus' annual Distinguished Teaching Award Ceremony (this year honoring Sally Goldman, South and Southeast Asian Studies; Edward Miguel, Economics; Joanna Picciotto, English; David Sklansky, Law; and Debarati Sanyal, French). The public and the campus community are invited--more than that, really--encouraged to attend. Although I oversaw this ceremony for many years, I am no longer involved with it, so this is not  meant to be crass publicity.

But it seems an appropriate time to say something about teaching at Berkeley. I have had the great pleasure over nearly 40 years of working with faculty from every corner of the campus, of reading many thousands of student evaluations, sitting in on classes, and interviewing students about their experiences in their courses. And I can say that Berkeley is a place where teaching matters, where outstanding teaching can be seen in every classroom building every day. I'm sure there are exceptions, but the faculty I know do not just go through the motions so they can sneak off and do their research.  They are constantly rethinking, reworking, and refining their courses or creating new, and often very innovative, courses. They talk online about teaching, they attend workshops and seminars, they seek advice from others, and they solicit feedback from their students.

There's a wonderful synergy at Berkeley between students and teachers. As part of the ceremony today, as in past years, there will be a video of the new recipients.  And I suspect there will be some point in the video when each one explains a certain moment in the classroom when a student or the whole class makes a breakthrough, when things come together in an ineffable way.  They will describe the thing as almost like a light going on.  But what they don't know is that as they talk about this moment, their faces light up in the same way their students' do.  When I see that moment on the video, it makes me, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, want to be a better teacher.

As I end this, I see that it is rather Pollyanna-ish--not the hard-edged, penetrating analysis that usually occurs on the Berkeley Blog.  Tomorrow we can deconstruct and rehistoricize and maybe even problematize teaching at Berkeley. But today is a day just to celebrate the faculty as teachers.