My most important accomplishment as a teacher is not that I have become an excellent instructor. Instead, my central achievement is that I have become an integrated teacher, scholar, and citizen – a true university professor. To appreciate what I mean by this claim, I must provide a little history.
Although I had wanted to become a college professor ever since high school, it took me a long time to appreciate fully what such a vocation truly entailed. In my first years as an instructor, I thought the sole task was to deliver the best courses possible. I learned whatever I needed to master, experimented with numerous techniques and strategies, developed new courses and constantly revised old ones. The students’ evaluations, in combination with their performance on papers and exams, gave me the feedback I needed to determine whether I was progressing as a teacher. Only a few years after I began, I started to receive university recognition for my efforts. In 1979 I was honored with theMagnar Ronning Award for Teaching Excellence, bestowed by the Associated Students of UC Davis.
Nevertheless, I soon perceived how inadequate were my endeavors. Everything centered on my classes, and so undergraduates not enrolled in my courses gained absolutely nothing from my presence on the campus. I started to realize the need to reach out beyond the walls of a singular course, to nourish those who might never have the opportunity to sit in one of my classrooms. I recognized the necessity of diversifying my efforts by reaching various students in different ways. And so I began to widen the scope of my activities.
This expansion made its first appearance in my department. I took over the responsibility of running the undergraduate program, serving as advisor to the hundreds of students who decided to become psychology majors. I helped the students establish a local chapter of Psi Chi, the national honorary society for the field, and I set up the departmental honors program. I even taught a year-long graduate course on how to teach psychology to undergraduates.
But quickly I discovered that my efforts could be expanded beyond the confines of just psychology majors. I began to give popular programs in the dormitories, and began to speak before student organizations and activities. Just as critically, I was impressed with the value of serving on those campus committees that make the crucial decisions affecting the quality of undergraduate instruction delivered at my university. This service allowed me to help change how teaching excellence was valued and rewarded in an institution that had probably placed too much emphasis on research. Although a prolific scholar myself, I always believed that research productivity should not be attained at the expense of teaching. Indeed, original scholarship should enhance the quality of university instruction.
That statement takes me to another fundamental transformation. In my initial years as a professor, my undergraduate teaching had been kept relatively separate from my scholarly activities. This was not an explicit goal, but rather it was something that just happened, because I did not know how to become a coherent teacher-scholar. Yet as I matured, the partition between the two worlds gradually dissolved. I began to introduce undergraduates to the excitement of doing original research, so that now more than 100 have their names on my publications. And I started to broaden my scholarship to include activities that contributed more directly to undergraduate instruction. Besides disseminating new teaching methods in a journal like Teaching of Psychology, I wrote books that could be used in undergraduate classrooms. In fact, I designed a General Education course around my area of expertise, producing the highly successful class on “Genius, Creativity, and Leadership” (Psychology 175). Eventually, I also began to publish articles specifically aimed at college students both within and outside my own discipline of psychology.
As my scholarly visibility grew, opportunities to integrate my teaching and research expanded even more. Because students in 175 are asked to devise a proposal for a original research project, my activities as Editor of the Journal of Creative Behavior put me in a unique position to help them develop their proposals. Also, I was frequently asked to deliver guest lectures and to lead seminars in undergraduate programs at other colleges and universities. Furthermore, because I am frequently interviewed for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, I eventually acquired very useful materials and experiences for my own classes. The most notable examples of this convergence, perhaps, are two television programs – one a PBS series on creativity and the other an Arts & Entertainment special on genius – that became available on video for use in classes. I have also served as consultant for a Creativity Museum that, when completed, will provide a tremendous resource for students of all ages.
Such accomplishments no doubt contributed to my being selected for the 1994 UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. Yet this very recognition also allowed me to integrate research and teaching in a manner that should live beyond my own personal existence. I was able to use the cash award to endow an annual prize for the most outstanding undergraduate research project. Bestowed at the commencement exercises each year, this prize should help encourage our undergraduates to take full advantage of the educational opportunities only available at a major research university.
This brief history should suffice to indicate why I view myself as a unified teacher, scholar, and citizen. For the instructional impact of an authentic university professor must be broad, deep, and enduring.
* This statement is revised from an essay written in 1997 at the request of UCD’s Vice Provost of Undergraduate Studies when he had nominated me for US Professor of the Year. At that time I was asked to specify what I considered “my most important accomplishment as a teacher.”