My general theory of teaching has two critical ingredients. The first one is preparation and the second one is enthusiasm.
If you don’t know what you’re talking about, how can it be effective? But if you don’t present it in a way that students think is interesting, is relevant, you’re not going to catch and keep their attention. There are a variety of ways in which enthusiasm can be communicated. I had a philosophy professor as an undergraduate course who was inarticulate, bumbling and yet highly inspirational because you knew that he was passionately interested in his questions. If you listened long enough, you discovered that he knew quite a bit. And then I’ve had instructors who were beautiful lecturers and were charismatic in a very different sort of way. The common ingredient for all good teaching, it seems to me, is this enthusiasm for the material.
I met a TA once who started out a class saying, “Well I don’t want to be here, and I’m sure you don’t want to be here. We just have to make the best of it.” And it rolled downhill from there. Unless you give students a sense that this is important material, this is interesting material, we’re going to kind of learn together about this, you’re not going to succeed.
Rice students are wonderful to teach. They’re smart, they’re by and large diligent. It’s not hard to get a response out of them. I always tell my students, “You get special points if you find a mistake in my lecture.” I get students catching me every once in a while. I like the interaction. Rice has been a wonderful place to teach for that reason, and its one of the reasons that I’m happy that I came here rather than staying at a state university. You have to try to keep up. I don’t know that you have to try to keep up methodologically. I don’t keep up methodologically with my field in the way that some of the younger people do. I’m not nearly as quantitative as they are, but I have to keep up with the world. I have to make sure that examples that I’m using, that theories I’m laying out, are relevant to the world today.