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November 24, 2009, Volume 56, No. 13

Failing upward: a Journey in Teaching

Emma E. Furth

I teach by fostering critical thinking and true understanding through reason. I hold fast to my tenet that by knowing a few basic, core principles of a subject and understanding how or the mechanisms by which a system works, we obviate the curse of memorization and allow for creativity and an open mind, enabling the discovery of “new” entities and furthering the understanding of the “old.” I invite questions beginning with “why.”

Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” Do we walk down the hallowed academic halls saying, “I am a faculty member and therefore I teach?” I could put forth an aura of self-importance, claiming that my motives are centered in teaching the future leaders and great doctors of our world. My reasons for devoting such energy to this endeavor are not so aristocratic. I teach for the same reasons I chose my profession as an academic physician—giving meaning to my life. Bottom line, I have fun. Yes, “helping” people is good and the seemingly “right” answer during one’s Medical School interview but one for me which was never uttered as doing so would not be completely genuine. I have always been fascinated by trying to understand how and why things work; the jolt of joy derived from that “aha” moment and insight is a natural “high.” During an interview for medical school, I described with great delight my experiences in my undergraduate research lab. The interviewer seemed very perplexed and annoyed as I spoke with passion about my scientific interests. He leaned toward me with slightly pursed lips and a squint in his eyes and proclaimed with a hint of disdain, “You seem to be more interested in molecules than people.” Without thought to what might be the “politically” correct response to such a condemnation of my expressions of joy and interests, I responded with fervent honesty, “Well, people are made of molecules.” The interview ended thusly. I was promptly and surprisingly accepted to that institution but did not elect to attend feeling that such an environment would be the death of my mind, spirit and soul.

Off to another medical school where my hopes were placed to find the critical thinking approach to learning in which I thrived as an undergraduate. My hopes were dashed as the first course of anatomy unveiled itself as a sinister plot to cripple my ego and rob my soul for it demanded memorization of an endless stream of facts; reasoning from first principles, derivation of solutions, and creativity were my cherished belongings that seemed to be confiscated at the door. Nausea ensued as elementary school memories of my agony with bearing my feelings of isolation and despair inflicted by the taunting of students and teachers alike telling me that I was “stupid” because I could not spell or memorize addition tables engulfed my being. Akin to a religious revelation, I vowed given the chance to teach that I would do so differently.

With great excitement and enthusiasm, I began my medical school teaching career. I thought my lectures were great and clinical teaching riveting—I taught from basic principles, I discouraged memorization, I was personable and passionate about the subject manner—I cared. The student evaluations came back and I read their harsh and biting comments which slammed me as a person and my teaching; I secluded myself in my office and cried. I dissected and gulped each and every comment: “Her beeper is too loud.” “She needs to have more detailed lecture handouts.” “Dr. Furth needs to cut down on handouts and save trees.” “Her jokes are lame.” As my clinical duties and training require being seated at the microscope and I being a person in need of not only constant intellectual stimulation but as well physical movement, one trainee exuded disdain for my inability to sit still, remarking “She needs a staple gun to her butt.” Picking the wet tissues and myself off the floor, I sought refuge and a reality check from a trusted colleague. Taking a small bit of advice and a large dose of her comfort, I charged ahead with my unwavering conviction in my core underlying principles of learning and teaching. I changed my lecture notes without altering an iota of the content or delivery of my lectures including the “lame” jokes. I presented in hard copy from my PowerPoint lecture with underlying written words in the note field as their lecture notes. Despite the fact the many trees were fallen to make this change, the student responses were worth the environmental disaster. Students would comment at our weekly meetings on how much better my teaching was that year as they heard such horrible things from former students. My PowerPoint lectures converted to hand outs were now held as the “gold standard” for all lecture notes. I had now presented to them the exact lecture and more in hard copy such that they did not have to scribble notes but could concentrate on my presentation. They were now more at ease. Interestingly, my once “lame” jokes were now marked as a highlight of my style. With acquired and deliberate political correctness, I thanked them for their feedback all the time thinking to myself “I really have not changed anything in my teaching—I deliver the same lectures—all that has changed is the notes which is only a small part of the process. My content and teaching style are unchanged.” My chair in front of the microscope is devoid of staples and I continue to seek frequent movement during my clinical work and training of residents, multitasking as we go. As I rise from my chair to walk and seek refuge for my legs, they are off tending to tasks for our work. I return revitalized and they return armed to finish our work. Everyone wins.

I have had many wonderful triumphant moments but many more bobbles along my teaching travels. I have learned that while success is sweet, failure has been my most gifted teacher. It is said that we learn from our mistakes; I therefore sit here writing as one of the most learned women at Penn. While Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power,” I have learned that knowledge coupled with wisdom is most powerful. With a few small changes, the perception of my teaching went from abysmal to amazing. But the molecules, fundamental construct and essence of my teaching mode have never changed. One may think that having effectively tweaked my system that all my teaching is now consumed with great delight and gusto. Not true. I still receive a variety of comments often each contradictory. “Dr. Furth’s lectures are poorly organized.” “Dr. Furth’s lectures are clear and understandable—bravo.” While I still cringe at the negative comments, I now chuckle at the reams of divergent responses. I have reached the state of mind I term “teaching existentialism.” When a student cited and criticized with great indignation my now infrequent spelling errors, particularly when I sinned by incorrectly using the plural Latin form of a medical term, I simply smiled; I corrected the error so as not to grate on another Latin nerve but all the while mourning. I fear that this student missed the big picture and connection. They seemed so focused on such an absurd aspect that I wonder if they actually learned anything. In the past I would have cried for me in my office but now instead I grieve for their loss. As my career continues with my being equipped with maturity, wisdom, and a good dash of a sense of humor, I am better able to put into perspective criticism such that I may continually be amazed and enthralled by my journey.

Dr. Emma E. Furth is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at HUP and was a recipient of the Lindback Award in 2006.

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This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - November 24, 2009, Volume 56, No. 13