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MacVicar lecturer details rewards of teaching

Dr. William G. Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972-88, reflected on his personal experiences as a teacher and student in the inaugural MacVicar Day lecture last Friday.

Dr. Bowen acknowledged that he had "taken some liberties" in choosing the title of his talk, "Good Teaching -- In a New Day." "While every day is indeed a new day, and teaching has to reflect the realities of new days, my main message will be about all days, since the essential qualities that make for good teaching are, in my view, essentially unchanging," said Dr. Bowen, now president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A crowd of about 175 students, faculty and staff filled the Bartos Theater in the Media Laboratory for the lecture.

Dr. Bowen, a graduate of Denison University with a PhD in economics from Princeton, noted that he made it a point to teach a class every year during his 21-year tenure as provost and president of Princeton. "I taught every year for the most selfish reason: I thoroughly enjoyed it," he said. "It was my way of staying in touch with the basic function of the university, and of retaining some sense of sanity during at least a few turbulent semesters (there once was a war in Vietnam...)."

Dr. Bowen ran down a list of reasons that made teaching a rewarding endeavor for him:

  • It is an organized way to "indulge a passion for talking about the substance of a subject [economics] that I found fascinating" to a captive audience of students.
  • He learned from his students.
  • He derived satisfaction from "watching students grasp a concept for the first time and then make it their own."
  • It provided a forum to meet "wonderfully talented young people of all sorts."
  • "Teaching is a productive activity; it spares at least some academics from excessive self-indulgence and even self-doubt."

In defining the traits that make a teacher exceptional, Dr. Bowen cited several who provided lasting lessons for him.

As a first-year graduate student, he was subjected to the Socratic approach used by Professor William Baumol, who required each student to explain "a nearly incomprehensible" section of a textbook. "I am grateful to this day for the precision and 'hardening' that I acquired through my sometimes traumatic experiences in this class -- and for the confidence that, if given enough time, I could in fact think my way through at least some problems," he said.

Referring to Paul Viner, a revered professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Princeton, he recalled that Professor Viner's wife once noted that students went through three stages in their attitude toward her husband: awe, intense irritation and mature appreciation. Upon hearing this, Whitney Griswold, a former student of Professor Viner's who later became president of Yale, replied: "Mrs. Viner, I am sorry to say that I am still in stage two."

Dr. Bowen alluded to two afflictions that teachers must avoid -- pomposity, "which unfortunately comes in many flavors," and over-identifying with students. "A mild form of this disease was reported by a Stanford professor of ecology who discovered that every time he remembers the name of a student, he forgot the name of a fish," Dr. Bowen said.

"I am in no way advocating aloofness or a 'students be damned' attitude," he added. "I am only trying to suggest that genuine concern for students and for their long-term welfare can require a careful balancing of attention and respect with discipline and challenge."

Noting that the lectures were inaugurated this year at the request of the MacVicar Fellows, President Charles Vest introduced Dr. Bowen by saying, "An inaugural speaker must set a high standard for future lectures." He added that Dr. Bowen is "one of the most highly regarded leaders in contemporary higher education" and noted that MIT was "extremely fortunate" to have him deliver the first MacVicar lecture.

"His sweeping endorsement of the quality and achievements of American higher education are amply justified by the careers and accomplishments of these magnificent teachers [the MacVicar Fellows]," said President Vest. "I am delighted that they have chosen Dr. Bowen to address them and that he has chosen to honor us -- and the memory of Margaret MacVicar -- by speaking with us today."

After the lecture, Dr. Bowen joined a panel of students and MacVicar Scholars to continue the discussion and engage in a lively dialogue with people in the audience. Members of the panel were MacVicar Fellows Alan Oppen-heim, Margery Resnick, Robert Silbey, Arthur Steinberg and Charles Stewart, and students Guan-Ien Cheng, Morgan McGuire, Iddo Gilon, Andrew Russell and Jacob Seid.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 1998.

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