The first class of Tsinghua psychology majors in a half-century is graduating in a few days. (The Tsinghua psychology department was closed in the 1950s — Soviet-style university reorganization — and reopened in 2008.) The seniors asked their professors for statements to be included in a memento book. My contribution:
I remember our first day of class (Frontiers of Psychology). It was my first time teaching in China. It was on a Monday, maybe it was your first class at Tsinghua. Some things surprised me. Moving from students in the front row to students in the back, English ability got worse. Each student said their name. When one student said her Chinese name, everyone laughed. I still do not understand this. This had never happened in my American classes. A student had her picture taken with me. This too never happened in America. There were two graduate students in the class. Both of them volunteered to be teaching assistants. In America, no graduate students attended my undergraduate classes, and you need to pay them a lot of money to be teaching assistants. (At Tsinghua, that was the only time graduate students came to my class.) The graduate student who became my teaching assistant told you, “Don’t say My English is poor. Say My English is on the way.” I can tell you now I disagree. It is confusing to say My English is on the way. There is nothing wrong with saying My English is poor. I say 我的汉语不很好 all the time. We were all so new that we weren’t sure when class ended! That was the first thing you made me learn: The length of a class period. I enjoyed having dinner with you. You were less afraid of me than my Berkeley students. I especially remember dinner with 徐胜眉, who told me the Chinese side of the debate about the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Most people in America, including professors like me, had no idea there is another side. I had had a big gap in my knowledge and hadn’t even realized it. The most important thing I learned from you was how to teach better. The homework you did was very good but I was puzzled how to grade it. From talking with you at dinner and listening to you in class, I could tell that all of you were excellent students. It did not seem like a good idea to make it difficult to get the highest grade, but what was the alternative? This was the puzzle that you pushed me to solve. Eventually I changed how I teach quite a bit, as you may know from talking to students from last year’s Frontiers of Psychology. Thank you for that, and may you teach your future teachers as well as you taught me.
Because my students were so good, they made me see the deficiencies in usual teaching methods especially clearly. It really did seem idiotic to take perfectly good work and carefully divide it into piles of best, good, and less good (and give each pile a different grade). Surely there were better uses of my time than making such distinctions and better uses of their time and mental energy than trying to do exactly what I wanted.
When I visited Berkeley to be considered for an assistant professor job, one of the interviews was with graduate students. One of them asked, “Which do you like better, teaching or research?” “Research,” I said. They laughed. All Berkeley professors prefer research, but you’re supposed to say you like them equally. I was unaware of this. I did like research more, and still do, which is why I am surprised that I talk about teaching so much. I told a friend at lunch recently that it was weird how much I talk about my teaching ideas.