Cruess Award Winner Essay: Teaching and Learning – Learning and Teaching


It is with great pleasure that I accept the 2008 William V. Cruess Award for excellence in teaching food science and technology from the Institute of Food Technologists. It is quite an honor to receive this award, but this award is also a testament to the teaching skills and support of my colleagues in our department. Moreover it confirms the contribution of our students, without whom I would not have learned how to teach or have been taught how to learn.

Most of us in academia are involved in teaching in some way – through structured courses, short courses, independent study, or a casual meeting in the hallway. Only a few of us, interestingly, are versed in educational philosophy, classroom organization and management, learning theory, methods of teaching and instructional design. But that has not stopped us from teaching or from learning.

We teach as we have been taught, but we learn from everyone. With any modicum of luck, we have been taught by the best in our fields. As learners, we are quick to determine if the teacher captures our attention and makes the subject matter interesting, or we listen half heartedly to the monotone drone and slow tick of the clock. Understanding the difference between the two styles makes us better teachers and learners.

As teachers, we start slowly and tentatively, drawing heavily from our undergraduate and graduate notes and on our mentor's methods. Gradually we learn by experience what makes a course work, what subject matter is more interesting, what examples paint pictures that capture the clarity of the moment. We learn while we teach. But how did we begin the process?

How many times have we seen a person accept a prestigious award and acknowledge their parents or an athletic coach as role models for their success? Almost always, the recipient of the award provides an anecdote about some teachable moment where they learned a life lesson. Parents and coaches have the ability to constantly reinforce—perhaps nag—until that behavior or lesson is learned. They are our first models and an introduction to learning. Favored teachers enjoy a similar role in ones' development.

But what about teaching and learning, learning and teaching? What makes these two powerful words inseparable? Perhaps it is because we cannot accomplish one without the other.

When I look back on my many years of schooling and choose those teachers that were my favorites, I realize that they presented themselves at that teachable moment where I was ready to move to the next plateau. They were the impetus for the jump ahead. Part of this maturing process was because of their exemplary teaching; the other part from my learning. What stands out in my mind, though, was that they all were creative in their respective genres and made me see things that I didn't know existed before they opened my eyes. Of course, all the information may have been readily apparent, but I could not see, could not comprehend, and could not use the information. It took the special person to teach for me to learn it. Through creativity and the gift of time, their work has changed my life.

Fifth grade is a pivotal point for most students, a time somewhere between childhood and thirty-something. My teacher, Mrs. Berg, taught the usual fifth grade subjects with, I'm sure, outstanding success, but what I remember is that she provided after-school classes in French and art, both of which had enormous appeal to me at the ripe old age of 10 as I strove for some level of sophistication. As I tentatively worked my way through French verbs and vocabulary, I truly felt ready to jet off to Paris with my now-realized meager linguistic skills. Our weekly singing of La Marseillaise still has me singing the French anthem while watching the Olympics. When I finally did go to Paris, not only did I speak “la langue française” but I drank a toast of wonderful French wine to Mrs. Berg. Art, on the other hand, was more of a challenge, because my father was in advertising, my mother was artistic and my sister majored in art. I, however, could not color within the lines, nor would I choose to do anything artistically because of “pressure” to live up to my artistic roots. Mrs. Berg taught me ways to be creative that suited my talents and she sowed the seeds of appreciating things from all angles. I learned that I could experiment, discover new ways to express myself and be creative in my own style.

High school was again a time of changes. Fortunately, Sister Mary de Sales, my calculus and physics teacher (that's right, calculus and physics) was right in the thick of my education and learning. On one occasion, she cancelled our calculus class unless someone needed special help. It seems that I was the only one to show up and we proceeded to review the difficulties I was encountering in the course. She remembers the session vividly; I do not. What I do remember in the ensuing years was that she gave me the gift of her time to clarify questions and something we sometimes forget: that students do not all learn at the same rate. On the other hand, she was famous for her creativity and humor, as typified by her usual pranks in physics class. As we sought to grasp the concept of simple machines, the lever, wheel & axle, inclined plane, wedge, pulley and screw, she managed to use most of these devices in “educating” us by changing a tire on a VW bus. To this day, I stand ready to do so, should AAA fail to arrive. Upon trying to help us visualize wave motion, she stood on the counter of the lab bench with a slinky strung across the room, showing us how waves behave. The lesson on electricity had us bringing to class a repairable electric object. I, however, brought my mother's iron in perfectly good working condition. After dismantling the inner contents of the iron, then replacing all the parts in the correct position (except for the few extra parts by the side), we were to plug in the fully repaired item. Unsure of my powers of reassembly, I deferred the ultimate test of my experiment to Sister, who was to plug in the iron to determine its working condition. I don't think I've ever seen anyone who has been electrically shocked and thrown across the room, but Sister did recover. I learned to try new things and not be shocked by what I might find out.

College was no less a time for learning for this biology major. However, when it came time to choose the deadly general education class in the arts, the choice of “Art through the Ages” or “Music through the Ages” left me somewhat less enthused. Enter, Sister Sheila. (In case you haven't picked up on things, I went to parochial schools from first grade through College). Sister Sheila was a relatively young nun without all the entrapments of habits and headdresses. For my cohort she was definitely “cool” as she taught film appreciation. As we viewed our way through the works of Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and Welles, I began to see films from my previously superficial way to a new understanding of angles, lighting and the power of words said or left unsaid. We never did see the third reel (that's right, reel) of Citizen Kane but we were nonetheless absorbed by our newfound ability to critique this epitome of all filmdom. And who would have thought that a nun would require us to see and critique the X-rated Midnight Cowboy as a final exam!

Graduate school in microbiology brought me to the laboratory of Tom Cook. Tom indulged my then passion in marine biology by developing a project on determining the microbial profile of bacteria associated with jellyfish in Chesapeake Bay. At times, the sudden disappearance of the jellyfish in that large estuary, a bane of swimming pleasure, suggested a die off due to some fatal pathogenic disease. As his teaching assistant for Applied Microbiology, I became educated in his ways of being creative and enthusiastic, and the response of the students to this mode of teaching. He exuded a genuine joy when he was in the front of the classroom, which led students to become far more engaged than was ordinarily seen. His suggestion to take food microbiology led me to food science where I eventually attained my Ph. D. My doctoral advisor in food microbiology, Dennis Westhoff, taught with enthusiasm and innovation and most importantly, made food microbiology relevant to everyday life. By serving as his teaching assistant for food microbiology class, I became enamored with the field and all of its applications. His lab manual still serves as the basis for the labs I teach today and his teaching style serves as the basis for my style. While revising the textbook, Basic Food Microbiology, Dennis taught me how to appreciate the clarity of writing and the attention to detail. These elements are part of my writing-intensive food microbiology course today.

What is the outcome of teaching? Is it that a student learns a plethora of facts, that can somehow be searched for in the web of one's mind or is it more important to regurgitate that information and impress those watching Jeopardy? Rather, I would suggest that the epitome of learning is the ability to marry simple and complex ideas such that the total is more than the sum of the parts. Even more intriguing is whether that same knowledge can be combined in new and different ways to open up new vistas. That's what Nobel prizes are for.

Perhaps, the most prized comment on one of my teaching evaluations was listed in the “What did you like least in this course?” category. The student wrote “Dr. Doores expects too much from an undergraduate student.” Does the life of a teacher get any better than that?

When asked to write this essay, I was unsure of the theme, but came across this quote taken from a journal kept by my great grandfather, Bernard R. Grogan, who was teaching school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1876. I think it is quite apropos and timely.

“Several years ago, in one of my classes in Natural Philosophy, there were some dull, careless boys; they took little interest in study but were enthusiastic in play. One Saturday, I went fishing with them. We had what the boys call ‘a good time.’ The next Monday, I turned the paddles and fishing rods into levers. The distance gained by a running over a standing jump; the agility with which boys tumble over the tail board of a wagon; the ability displayed by a small boy in “dodging” a larger one to undo inertia. Thereafter, I brought the sports of the playground into the class-room and the result was – those same boys before the end of the term made the best practical scholars in the class.”

Now, if I can just get the third reel of Citizen Kane, I can figure out what rosebud means.