We Are All Teachers; We Are All Learners

by Drew Gilpin Faust

Recently, I have found myself doing a lot of thinking about teaching and its place at Penn. In part, this has been prompted by my service on the SAS Personnel Committee. Every case for faculty appointment or promotion reviewed by this committee contains quite extensive information about the candidate's teaching--a description of teaching philosophy, course ratings, student letters, even examples of course materials. I have been deeply impressed by how much care and effort goes into teaching at Penn and how much excellent teaching surrounds us in this University. In the context of this ever expanding appreciation of the quality of teaching at Penn, I found the articles which appeared last spring in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the University's various failures and shortcomings especially distressing. Unfortunately, this coverage represents but a single example of a much broader attack on the whole concept of the research university, an attack that is all the more upsetting because it arises from a profound misunderstanding of both the goals and the achievements of this sort of institution.

The fundamental premise of the research university, it seems to me, is that we are all teachers and we are all learners. This must be true for faculty and students alike, for it is this ultimate interdependence of our research and our pedagogy that justifies our simultaneous commitment to both our students and our scholarship--even when the two on occasion seem to pull us in separate directions. Students must understand this greater good when they suffer the inconveniences of searching for a professor who is off in the lab or the archives or at a conference or undertaking the various tasks of an active scholar--tasks that may make her less available than if she did not have the responsibility to learn as well as to teach. Faculty, in turn, must recognize that students who come to Penn have given us the opportunity and responsibility to introduce them to a world of intellect and scholarship. Students and faculty alike must believe in the benefits of being a part of a community and a continuum of learning that pushes to the very edge of human knowledge.

As I think about my own experience, it seems clear to me how my research has not only yielded nifty little historical tidbits to share in lectures or seminars, but has helped me encourage students to take part in the excitement of discovering something new--reformulating, reconstructing, revisioning how we might have understood a question before. It is easy for me, as for most faculty, I think, to see the impact of my research on my interactions with students. What I learn in scholarship constantly changes how and what I teach.

But I am also aware of how as a teacher I am also constantly a learner. I think we expect to learn from graduate students. They are able to spend more time reading than most of us are able to; they are often first aware of new directions, new approaches and they pull us along with them. As they become researchers in their own right, we learn from their investigations as we do from our own. Right now, for example, I am finding out how little I knew about pre-Civil War Florida, a southern state I and most other southern historians had shamefully neglected, a state that, one of my graduate students is discovering, raises significant questions for many of our assumptions about the Old South.

Undergraduates teach me too--sometimes in much the same way grad students do. Earlier this year a senior involved in an independent study project found an extraordinary manuscript letter on Civil War death that helps me see with deeper understanding a problem on which I am just beginning to work.

But teaching undergraduates instructs me in other and perhaps even more important ways. Undergraduates demand that I look at the big picture: they are impatient with the narrowness historians are too likely to embrace. For example, they have made me think about the Civil War as one of many wars -- have made me think comparatively, made me ask broader questions than I otherwise might. In challenging me to consider the relationship of historical questions to the larger scope of human experience, they have made me a much better and more interesting historian.

We are all teachers; we are all learners. In its time of crisis we must work to explain and defend the research university--the unique institution that nurtures this extraordinary possibility. Those of you who soon leave academic life can aid by taking up the battle in the real world, by helping universities articulate their case in the realms of the media and politics. Those of us who remain behind as faculty can of course seek a public voice as well. But we have another responsibility. If we are to be able to make a plausible case for the research university, we must ensure that it does indeed fully dedicate itself to the ideal of integrated and interdependent teaching and learning I have described, for this must serve as the foundation for its legitimacy and its defense.

Talk About Teaching is a series conducted jointly by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society. Dr. Faust is the Annenberg Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences. This essay is based on her remarks upon receipt of the Ira Abrams Award for Distinguished Teaching, April 24, 1996.


Volume 43 Number 9
October 22, 1996

Return to Almanac's homepage.

Return to index for this issue.