Teaching with Peter


It’s hard to say when the idea of team-teaching a course with my colleague, Peter Herczfeld, a professor of electrical engineering, came into being. As an English professor, I rarely see, much less speak to, the engineering side of our faculty. They inhabit the imposing, new glass and steel structure a few blocks away from the dowdy building where my department of English and philosophy has its offices. The few engineers who eat in the faculty dining room cluster together to talk about superconductors and football, on neither of which I am conversant.

But I met Peter by chance some years back when we served together on a University curriculum committee. The committee engaged in the usual turf warfare: the engineers and the humanities people battling over some small parcel of the curriculum each wanted for themselves.  I had stormed out of one of the meetings when a particularly arrogant engineer proclaimed that his students shouldn’t have to waste their time studying poetry.

The next day, Peter called me up. He had taken some trouble finding out who I was; no one on the committee seemed to know. But as I would discover, he was nothing if not an exhaustive researcher—and so he tracked me down.

“I wanted to tell you,” he said, “that not all engineers think that way.” This was true. He certainly did not think that way. He loved poetry, as I would discover. Not to mention art and music. Also tennis, downhill skiing, cycling, hiking, and travel to distant places like Tibet. Did I mention that he is 74 years old, which seems to have only slightly affected his tennis game? He was born and raised in Hungary, a country whose inhabitants, according to my informal research, are inclined to be fanatically well-rounded. Next to him, I was a philistine. But we became friends and thus hatched the team-teaching scheme.

We finally taught the course last year.  It was called “The Future of the University,” and explored such trends as rising tuition costs, corporate partnerships, the role of athletics, the reliance on part-time faculty, and the growing importance of the Internet in the curriculum. But beyond the content of the course were the peculiar challenges of teaching with Peter.

These began during the planning stages of the course. We had both read several books on our subject, and I had sketched out a syllabus. But Peter was not ready for a syllabus: “We need to read some more,” he pronounced with Hungarian certitude. As it happens, we had to read a lot more. There was always another book that had to be consulted, another issue to be plumbed. Every time I saw him he held a few new tomes under his arm and would explain that this one had some interesting material, though it was not well-written, and that one had a good few chapters if you could get through the introduction, and that a third wasn’t really worth reading but had some excellent graphs. Graphs! I was an English professor; I didn’t do graphs, much less feel the need to read every blessed thing written on this vast and tangled subject. But I was team-teaching the course with Peter and thus obliged to listen. In the end, I acquired a more comprehensive view of the state of higher education than I ever dreamed possible, though my office is now knee-deep in books and papers.

After we began the course, Peter’s method continued to contrast with my own.  He marshaled great armies of facts to support his points; I interjected with secondary observations. And while I took the worrisome trends in higher education in stride, Peter became incensed by what he read. If he hadn’t been in such good shape, I might have feared for his health. As it was, I noticed that he looked concerned when I ate a piece of cake (he eats only fruit for dessert), and I assumed that he was worrying about my health, which, since I don’t cycle or play tennis or hike, probably made more sense than the other way around.

Our combined experience in the classroom was about 70 years, and yet, working together, we were starting from scratch. We had to make room for each other—like sharing a bed after years of celibacy (not the best analogy but not the worst either). It wasn’t always an easy thing to do.

If teaching alone is a solo performance, a soft shoe with the spotlight on oneself, team-teaching is a ballroom dance: a waltz, a fox trot, sometimes a jitterbug. The dance should be fun, with only occasional crushed toes. We managed to have some laughs and didn’t exactly fall on our faces. And as Peter emailed me at one point late in the term: “Note: we are still on speaking terms.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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