On Meaningful Teaching

In 1984, I was “between first choice colleges.” The university where I spent my first year was not a great fit. I realized early in the year that I was going to transfer, but I had to stick out the whole year so that all my credits would transfer. I expected to go to my “first choice to transfer” in the fall, but some paperwork got lost, so I had to wait a semester. To avoid wasting a semester, I enrolled in a couple of courses at the local state college and spent two evenings each week in class after a day at work.  

One of the courses was a literature course. The professor was an older man with whom we had an interesting class.

I learned many lessons during my freshman year at I university I did not like, and it was that I needed to be a reader in my field. I subscribed to some science magazines (I was studying to be a science teacher) and went to the local bookstore whenever I was in the neighborhood (or at the mall). It may not seem an undergraduate science education student would have a very formative experience in a literature course taken to not waste a semester, but that is exactly what happened.

My literature professor mentioned Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould one evening. I don’t recall what motivated him to mention those essayists, but I know that I took his advice and found first a collection of Thomas’ Essays (my guess is Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony) then one of Gould’s (my guess is Ever Since Darwin).

Thinking back on my career and my intellectual life and my concept of teaching and learning, I see this as a very important episode. Gould became an intellectual hero. I read (and reread) his essays and books. Once digital media appeared, I started listening to and watching his lectures and presentations. I still do engage with his work regularly.

 What is interesting to me about this episode and Gould’s influence on my thinking is the fact that it lacked the hallmarks of what curriculum leaders suggest is vital to teaching. There were no standards that he articulated to focus that evening’s lesson; there were no specific educational outcomes associated with this lesson. I expect he did not have specific formative or summative assessment items for this comment. (Of course, these recollections are all those that I have remembered or—more accurately—that I constructed, over the decades.)

The story I have created over the years is that our professor knew his students (or at least he knew me) well enough to know that there were some essays that I should know. He taught and I trusted his judgement.

Gould has had a profound effect on me. I wonder if my intellectual development would have been different if that literature professor had focused exclusively on his curriculum rather than learning his students and offering them valuable lessons, even if they were not in the standards, in the assessment plan, or not even relevant to every student in the class.