Thursday, September 29, 2011

An open letter to my past and future students

As most of my readers know, I teach Public Health graduate students and the University of Massachusetts, sometimes on campus, and sometimes online. This is an open letter to all of my past and future students. 

First, I want to thank everyone in my June course who took the time to complete the evaluation -- the feedback is very helpful to me. I also want to thank the whole class (and all my previous and future classes) for the privilege of learning together with you. Looking at this and previous rounds of evaluations made me realize that I need to make a public statement that all students contemplating taking my courses can read before they commit.

My evaluations tend to be bimodal -- a peak around "love", a (smaller, thankfully) peak around "hate", and mostly a trough in between. Oddly, the reasons for the love and the hate are the same: not too much structure, not too much interim formal performance evaluations, a lot of opportunities for discussions and questions. Everyone seems to appreciate my effort to make the material interesting and relevant, but a substantial number do not seem to like it.

I am actually fascinated by the convergence of the reasons for liking and disliking. By way of inference, I am going to suggest that where you fall out on the teaching should tell you more about your learning style than how I teach. To clarify, let me spell out my philosophy of teaching.

Whether I teach on campus or online, I limit my classes to graduate students. The reason for this is not that I do not think that undergrads cannot handle the material. Rather it is because I believe nothing replaces time with a topic to develop a depth of understanding and discussion about it. So, I view my classes as incubators of ideas. I do not see myself as the oracle delivering answers. My role is to get you excited about the questions. Furthermore, it is not my questions that should excite you, but the questions that you come to at the limits of your knowledge seen through the prism of the class material and discussions.

To be sure, I realize that this not a comfortable place for many. Most of us glide through an educational system that convinces us that there is a single correct answer, and, after teaching us to parrot it compliantly, punishes us if we stray. So, swimming in the sea of questions, seemingly answering them only to realize that the answers lead to further questions is disquieting. Yet it is at this edge that we gain access to the next level of understanding of our universe. Here, the feedback is not about an arbitrary letter, but about the exuberance of ideas, discussion generated and the richness of asking the questions.

I cannot tell you how much I love the learning environment that we create together. I gain something from each and every one of you, and I hope that each of you walks away with at least one idea that is new. What I suggest to you if you are a potential student considering taking a course with me in the future is to contemplate the boundaries of your own comfort zones in learning. If you like the feeling of vertigo that you get when old dogmatic answers are shattered and uncertainty reigns, take my classes. If you are worried about how it might feel, but curious to try, I will meet you where you are and help you weave a net to cradle your fall. But if you know that uncertainty cripples you, that you would rather have a map for every step of the way, my classes may be the wrong stop along your educational path at this time. But perhaps sometime in the future?

Again, thanks to everyone for enriching my learning. I miss you and look forward to future opportunities for exchanging ideas.                    


  1. Your comment about the educational system pretending there is only one correct answer is all too true. Yet the only questions with one correct answer are so simple as to be irrelevant to most of what we need to know.

    Unfortunately the public sees the world in this simplistic view, having been trained to do so with terrible repercussions for our political discourse.

  2. After read your post I can understand that how much you love the learning environment. great stuff.

  3. Dr. Zilberberg,

    I am currently a student of public health (although not at U-Mass), and I highly appreciate your blogging style. When you have time could you list a couple of seminal books or articles in the field that you would recommend for public health students?