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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Professorial Charisma: Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side?

My wife passed me the  Science Times section of the New York Times this morning in which there is a conversation about teaching physics with Harvard professor Eric Mazur.  Very interesting, particularly when juxtaposed with the thoughts about teaching law from the recent New Law Professors Workshop.  Here's a taste:

Q. When a task force on teaching at Harvard gave its report this past January, its chairwoman, Theda Skocpol, cited you as one of Harvard’s most innovative teachers. Have many of your colleagues since asked to observe your classes?

A. A few. At Harvard, teaching is left to the individual professor. There isn’t a lot of cross-pollination. The upside is that this “every tub on its own bottom” credo has made it possible to experiment with my own classes and not get much interference.

Now, I’ve walked into science classrooms here to see what the others do. Some of it makes me burn. You know, these great, fantastic performances by energetic professors where attendance is miserable and half the students seem asleep. Toward the front of the room, you see a handful of kids furiously taking notes, while others fiddle with their laptops. “Any questions?” the professor asks. There are none.

Q. When you teach Physics 1b, do you give “fantastic performances?”

A. You know, I’ve come to think of professorial charisma as dangerous. I used to get fantastic evaluations because of charisma, not understanding. I’d have students give me high marks, but then say, “physics sucks.” Today, by having the students work out the physics problems with each other, the learning gets done. I’ve moved from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side.”

This is reminiscent of Lao Tzu's words in the Tao:  "When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'"

More on the substance of the physics in another post.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 17, 2007 at 08:23 AM in Legal Theory, Lipshaw, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Call me anal, but although traditionally ascribed to him, the words most likely were not Lao-Tzu's (even presuming such a person existed), and the text was the Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way and its Power). As Russell Kirkland notes in Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (2004), "the mistaken belief that the Tao Te Ching was written by a wise man named 'Lao-tzu'...rank[s] alongside such traditional attributions as Moses' composition of the Pentateuch, Solomon's composition of the Book of Proverbs, or John's composition of the fourth canonical gospel."

But your use of the quote was otherwise--substantively--spot on. And this is rather comparable to the reasons Socrates referred to himself as a midwife.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 17, 2007 8:53:33 AM

Thanks for this Jeff; very important insights.

Posted by: Alfred L. Brophy | Jul 17, 2007 10:51:14 AM

Speaking of what physics can do for law, see Mike Dorf's excellent post on the question here: http://michaeldorf.org/2007/07/physics-analogies-and-law.html

On the substance of Mazur's comments, thanks to Jeff for cross-pollinating them to us. It has always struck me at my own institution how the student evals are a dead give away for profs who are popular without being especially effective. How many in our profession are doing it in the hopes of being a "guide on the side," though?

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Jul 17, 2007 10:06:06 PM

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