That Ineluctable Essence of Excellent Teaching

For class, I read an essay by Gad Yair titled “Can We Administer the Scholarship of Teaching?  Lessons from Outstanding Professors in Higher Education.”  Instead of examining quantifiable aspects of excellent teaching that can be recreated from classroom to classroom, Yair has conducted a qualitative study that attempts to identify the characteristics of extraordinary teachers.  His study emphasizes the “somewhat neglected aspects of student-professor relations and passionate instruction in higher education” (449). 

If I were still in the business of teaching, this study might be equally inspiring and daunting.  Inspiring, because in the interviews that formed the basis for the study, people recount the electrifying experiences they had with professors.  Even decades later, former students have vivid memories of that master teacher.  Daunting, because the professor is described as a “knowledgeable expert” who “reflected intellectual rarity:  Depth, seriousness, expertise, and creativity” (455).  All right, I’m no longer in teaching, and descriptions such as these make me feel sweaty and, well, intimidated. 

I got the feeling that Yair was talking about the rarest of the rare, the Michael Phelpses of the academy.  We can all learn from Phelps, I guess, but mainly we want to go slack-jawed in the presence of his expertise.  Ditto for these master professors.  Yair implies that the qualities they embody–primarily a passion for their students and their subject–cannot be institutionally replicated the way that technical skills can. 

It is interesting that Yair asked his respondents to report their most memorable life-changing “Eureka” moment in the classroom, rather than a more extended teaching process (say, a teacher’s effectiveness over a semester).  I have had professors who have proven their mettle for the duration of a course, but identifying those moments of pure insight was tougher for me. 

Something then came to mind, a stray comment really, that intrigued me and has stayed with me for twenty-plus years.  It was uttered in my upper-level math classes; by whom, I can’t remember.  It may have been echoed by other teachers and thus not attributable to one source.  Here it is:  “That’s an elegant proof.” 

It was said with a glance at the chalkboard, the type of sideways admiring look that might have been directed at an expensive sports car but was instead bestowed on this proof.  I can’t remember what proof.  ( I guess Yair would have thrown me out of his study.)  But it was streamlined, and clever, not relying on the unimaginative or brute-force.  It started with a carefully-chosen but simple premise which it built up through a series of logical steps before–surprise!–conjuring the last piece out of some hidden pocket and sliding it into place.  Voila!  Q.E.D. 

I remember that comment because it gave me a fleeting glimpse into the mind of the mathematician, which was more than a warehouse of theorems and calculations and lemmas.  It was a place of creativity, where beauty and elegance resided.  So that’s what it was like to be a mathematician.  This unintentional comment was one of the few insights I got into that mysterious realm. 

Those types of remarks may give the thrill of discovery when they are uttered, or they may pass peacefully by.  Only years later, when you realize that one has lodged in your mind like a burr and won’t come out, do you know you are a slightly different person for having heard it.

Published in: on September 5, 2008 at 1:43 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Edit me if this is inappropriate, but you really made me think about moments of insight that I’ve had from professors over the years. Not those moments when I realized “Oh crumbles, I’ve made a huge mistake with my major” (although I’ve had those), but ones that I carried with me.

    Dr. John Hague, known affectionately at times at Stetson University as “Vague Hague” though this was far from the truth, once gave his freshman honors social science class a little tip before the first round of paper revisions. “Please try to avoid passive verbiage if you can. It constipates your writing.”

    I’m not sure I absorbed as much about the Weber thesis as he tried to wedge into my 18 year old brain, but I’ve never forgotten to always double check for the sneaky passive construction, and I hope I’ve become a better writer for it.

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