Hubert L. Dreyfus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversations with Hubert L. Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy, UCB; November 2, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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More Thoughts on Teaching

Let me interrupt you one second, because the next thing I wanted to ask you was, you said that your main vocation is a teacher, so let's talk about skills, which you've already started doing, but related to what is involved in making teaching a calling and doing it well.

That's interesting, because teaching is peculiar but not probably so peculiar in that there really isn't anybody telling you the rules to start out with, whereas if you're a driver, or a chess player, or learning most things when you're a grownup, you start by being told what are the things you're supposed to pay attention to and what you are supposed to do when these things happen. But nobody told me that about teaching and I'm very suspicious if anybody goes around trying to tell anybody that about teaching. It would be a trap, because you might just get stuck there. People get stuck in what Stuart calls being "just competent," which means following the normal rules and doing the normal things. Well, in teaching there aren't any rules, so in learning to teach you're sort of like a child who also, at first, has to just do it and see what works and what doesn't.

So, there I was doing things -- I started out, I think, very badly as a TA at Harvard. I had in mind exactly what I wanted the students to learn, and I had a plan for the whole hour, and all this energy that I felt, and intensity, was to make sure that they got exactly where I wanted them to get in exactly the time I wanted them to get there. That was not the way to do it. You've got to take advantage of the accidents that come along, and follow them. So, anyway ...

Let's pursue this a minute. So, in your role as a teacher, the process -- in a way, the students are witnesses to your learning.

Not exactly. I'm told again and again -- I won outstanding teaching awards at MIT and here -- that what I do is I involve the students in a joint process of learning. And I'm not faking it. I'm always learning. Again, you don't figure these things out, they just happen. I didn't say to myself, "Ah, teaching is really learning." Oddly enough, Heidegger says exactly that. But I just wouldn't want to teach if I weren't learning something at every lecture.

Of course, it's great luck to be at a place like Berkeley, where there are very smart students who usually understand the subject better than I do in some aspect or other, so even after thirty years I'm still learning.

But another thing I was going to mention is this business about risks. You have to just take a risk. You're there in front of the class and if you get it wrong, you don't want to be embarrassed or defensive or try to browbeat the students into thinking you're right, like some of my colleagues do. I think I'm really teaching well when I come in the next lecture and spend the first ten or fifteen minutes at least confessing the things that I got wrong and that the students in office hours and the lecture were on the right track. I think that's important for them to see that they can contribute new ideas. But I don't do it because it's important for them to see it, I do it because I have to straighten out what I messed up.

You've got to be able to take the risks and you don't want to ask yourself, "What's a rule that will enable me to keep from making that mistake next time?" This is a very important idea of Stuart's which, I think, nobody else has. People think -- you read about it -- if something goes wrong, you try to formulate some kind of rule that says don't do that sort of thing in that sort of situation again, and then you try to follow that rule. Well, that will make you rigid and routine and standard, and you'll be stuck at competence. So, what should you do? Well, this is what Stuart says and it probably is right. You simply feel bad about your mistakes and feel good about what works and dwell on that. The really great basketball players, or musicians, or whatever, say that they do that, and I know in teaching I do it.

I have a peculiar habit, which I now understand, thanks to the skills story that Stuart told. I always tape my lectures, and when I'm going to give the lecture on that subject again the next year, I listen to the previous lecture. Now it's on my iPod. It used to be on my Walkman, or in my car, wherever. I'm always listening to my previous lectures. None of my colleagues do that. I'm doing it and I'm saying, "Wow, I did that right, that was great," or "Oh my goodness, I'm following this terrible path and it's going very badly." But I'm not looking for the rules to prevent it. And somehow, if you just do it, if you just take the risk and suffer the consequences and feel good about the results, it tunes the neural net in your head and you're not stuck with rules and you get so that you can respond to each particular situation in a way that mostly works. And if it doesn't work, that's all right too, because that's how you learn.

So, the skills story and the risk and the calling and the teaching all fit together, and if it weren't for philosophy, I suppose, nobody would see that they fit together. My brother's report to the Air Force would still just be resting there on the desk for the Air Force, whereas I put it together with Heidegger and -- now comes Merleau-Ponty.

Right. That's what I was just going to say. So, let's go back to Merleau-Ponty.

Next Page: Merleau-Ponty

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