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Stanford Report, May 19, 1999

'Academic vagabond' finds little difference in teaching literature, law


Teaching is part dictatorship and part showmanship, says Robert Weisberg, vice provost for faculty relations and the Edwin E. Huddleson Jr. Professor of Law. During a recent talk titled "Teaching Across Disciplines: Reflections of a Pedagogic Switch Hitter," Weisberg told an audience that his purpose was to "explore whether the experience of teaching in different disciplines tells us anything about the art of teaching that a single field can't."

Weisberg, who holds a doctoral degree in English from Harvard, described his own career as "academic vagabonding." Before earning his law degree from Stanford in 1979, he was a literature professor at Skidmore College.

"Though I've changed careers from literature to law, I haven't found the challenges of teaching in any one discipline that different from the challenges of teaching in another discipline. There really is a common denominator," he said. "It might have something to do with the term Socratic method."

Although Weisberg said he didn't want anyone to walk away from the April 29 lecture, part of the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series, with the impression that he was promoting the Socratic method à la "The Paper Chase" in today's classrooms, he did, however, want to convey the notion that some of the underlying goals of the ancient rhetors should shape contemporary teaching.

"We all to some extent rely on deduction and induction. We try to get students to realize that what we're teaching them is a way of thinking and ultimately a way of being and that it is within their grasp. It actually is inside ­ it has to be drawn out," he said.

Weisberg called this a form of benign dictatorship. "A teacher has to decide when she goes into the classroom that she is taking the risk of appearing superior," he said. "If you don't feel superior in some way, you may be letting your students down." Even though students will participate and will not be told exactly what to say, he said, "things are going to be elicited from them in a way that's not exactly predetermined but is nevertheless being orchestrated. That's what a teacher should do."

Even when the goal of teaching is merely to convey information, Weisberg says, what teachers really are doing is reinforcing a way of thinking about that material. "What you are doing is modeling a process more than conveying information," he said.

The performance comes in showing students "how it is done," Weisberg added. "We portray ourselves in the world as people who think this way, and we hope to induce that way of being in our students. All teaching is a form of self-portrayal. It's a form of theatrics. It's a form of acting."

Even when teachers strive to appear invisible and "get out of the way of the material," that is a calculated act, Weisberg said. "One might as well acknowledge from the start that one is performing, one is portraying oneself. One should never be lulled into thinking that teaching is going to be some kind of immediate unmediated offering of feelings [or] passions. All teaching is irreducibly artificial. You may be offering a self to your students that's unique to you ­ different from all other selves ­ but it is still a portrayal. You're acting in a certain way, because you're offering your students a model of how to think about things."

If delivering information were the only goal, Weisberg said, there are more efficient ways to do that. It would be easier, for instance, to have students read the material. "And of course the economies of scale are greater because one can omit or issue or write the data up in written form and get it distributed to far more people than you can normally talk to," he said. Weisberg, however, acknowledged the benefits of the "aural and visual method of conveying information. People remember things better through that set of techniques very often, as opposed to reading techniques."

In the last part of his lecture, Weisberg used an overhead projector to show a case from a law school casebook, a poem titled "The Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell, and a list of crime statistics used in a sophomore college criminology class to explain how a professor might use each one as a teaching tool.

He said those visiting a law school classroom for the first time might be surprised at the level of student participation. He noted, however, that the format is not a free-flowing discussion. "We quite explicitly value different types of perspectives that students from different backgrounds and undergraduate disciplines bring to law, but I think it would be a very sentimental statement to say we want to hear our students' opinions on the cases. It's a very kind of orchestrated elicitation of a certain way of thinking about a case which assumes that somewhere way back the students actually know, but they don't realize they know how to do it."

Likewise, in a class about the poem, Weisberg says, a professor should resist the temptation to explain it. "What the teacher is showing the students is not the meaning of the poem but a demonstration of how one submits to a poem, allows oneself to be governed by it and possibly overwhelmed by it, and maybe at the end retrieves a little self-discipline and manages to reestablish in some cruel way one's relationship with the poem." He said the range of reactions to the poem probably would be much wider than it would be to a legal case; nevertheless, the role of the professor is to "discipline" the students' reactions. "Surely we want to encourage people to speak up, but I would suggest that a teacher who explicitly or, more important, effectually conveys to the students the idea that what should go on in the reading of the poetry lesson is the offering up of spontaneous authentic responses is actually a disservice to students." Instead, he said, the "spontaneous subjective response" may be a very important component of the appreciation process, and the professor ultimately may have to "filter or discipline" those reactions.

In terms of the crime statistics, which were broken down by region, Weisberg noted that in a two-week class or a one-day class there would be no firm conclusions drawn about the roots or the significance of the geographic differences. "We are, however, going to learn something about how one can responsibly do this kind of reasoning. Basically the teacher ­ either by lecture or this thing, which can be called a discussion ­ is going to be modeling how to go about being sincerely confused and confounded by these things, tempted toward certain kinds of explanations, and then ultimately becoming capable of overcoming those temptations by doing a certain kind of responsible reasoning. And I'll just say, 'Gee, that kind of looks like the Socratic method.'" SR