ENDPAPER: A Little Coffee To the Rescue



WHEN I FIRST began teaching, I was invited to a workshop for new faculty. Like most people who teach at universities, I had spent a long time learning what to teach, but none learning how to teach it. Somehow, my university seemed to hope, a weekend spent with experienced members of its faculty would make up for that.

It took me more than a weekend to learn how to teach, but I did learn a few things at that workshop. One thing I learned is that I didn't learn much from speeches. My colleagues presented well-crafted lectures about the tools they used in the classroom. They told us how to use the blackboard well, how to show slides, how to make up tests. I enjoyed their presentations, but don't remember a thing they said.

One thing that I do remember happened at a coffee break. Finding myself alone, I turned to a mathematics professor standing nearby. He seemed quite old to me at the time, although he was younger then than I am now. I asked him what his favorite teaching tool was. ''A cup of coffee,'' he said.

I drank coffee too, but I didn't think of it as a teaching tool. It helped to keep me awake, but that always seemed less of a problem for me than for my students. I asked him how he used it. ''Well,'' he said, ''I talk too much and too fast in the classroom. Students sometimes have trouble following me. So every once in a while, when I've said something I want my students to think about, I stop and take a sip of coffee. It lets what I've just said sink in.''

The Cup Was Empty

When we were called to the next talk, he put down his cup and I noticed there had never been any coffee in it. I thought that was rather odd, and said so. ''My doctor told me to stop drinking coffee,'' he explained. ''So I use an empty cup. Doesn't make any difference.''

I took a full cup of coffee with me to my next class that Monday morning long ago. It helped. My pauses, as I sipped, not only gave my students time to think about what I had said, but gave me time to think about what I was going to say next. I began to use my pauses to look around the room to see how my students were reacting to what I had just said. When I saw their attention wander, I tried to bring them back. When I saw them puzzled over some concept that I thought I had explained, I gave another example. My lectures became less organized and less brilliant, but my students seemed to understand me better. And my courses became more popular.

Eventually I had to cut down on coffee too, and so I started taking an empty cup to class. Now I don't even bring the cup. I find that pausing comes naturally to me. I stop, from time to time, to think about where I am, where my students are and where we are going.

When I started teaching, I thought only about what my students thought of me. I planned jokes, clever presentations and ways to demonstrate my erudition. Now I tend not to care so much what my students think of me, and to think more about the students, the course and the subject. I tend to think more about the big picture.

The ability to see the big picture seems to come with age. I remember when my children first started playing soccer. At first they could see only the ball. They chased after it, wherever it went. Then, as they grew older, they began to see the playing field as a whole, and they started to play their positions. They waited for the ball to come to them. As they grew older yet, they began to think about the whole game, to think about their team and to develop strategies.

Perhaps it was just that they had improved their mastery of the technical skills and could think about putting their skills together, much as people who have learned the mechanics of driving can focus on driving as a whole, instead of thinking about braking or shifting gears. Or, perhaps, they had just grown older and more mature.

Whatever it is, my children became better soccer players and, with time, I think I became a better teacher. I find that, as I get older, it becomes easier and easier to stop and think about what I am doing as I am doing it. It's easier for me to think about the whole picture. I still remember how my parents used to look at scenery, and how I wondered what they were looking at. They seemed to see forests, where I saw only trees or, more often, leaves. Now I see the scenery, and my children don't.

I've found that older people talk more slowly and pause more often. I like to think that it's not just that their thinking has slowed up (although mine has), but because they think more about what they are saying. Perhaps we choose older people as our leaders, at least in part, because they have the ability to think about the big picture.

Another Workshop

A few years after that workshop that was supposed to introduce me to teaching, I was invited to another. This time I was one of the experienced members of our faculty, and I was supposed to tell my younger colleagues how to teach. When the other speakers explained the proper uses of computers, slide projectors and videotapes, I explained the uses of coffee cups.

My friend the mathematics professor was there too. We talked again at a coffee break. I reminded him of our conversation, so long ago, and told him that I was now drinking less coffee too. I boasted that I no longer took a cup with me because I no longer needed it. But I told him that it had helped, and I thanked him for suggesting it.

I was thinking about all this the other day when a colleague told me about a new professor in her department. His teaching was not going well, she said. Although his research was exciting and he knew his subject well, he was doing badly in the classroom. Was there anything I could do to help? I thought there might be. I walked to his office, and knocked on the door. ''Do you have time for a cup of coffee?'' I said.