Christopher W. Fletcher

Off-Script Learning

Created: November 5, 2010
Updated: October 5, 2011

During my time at Berkeley, several faculty interactions changed the way I think about life in fundamental ways. The rest of this post is about the first (that I can remember) of these moments and what I learned from the experience.

I took Economics 100A (E100A) as an optional breadth course in junior (3rd) year. I haven't really followed up on the subject, however, and several moments in lecture turned into the bulk of what I learned in the course.

Throughout the semester, the Professor went off topic and addressed broad issues that he thought all undergraduates should be aware of. The first pertained to why we (as undergraduates) are here. He said: you are not here to master the subject matter that is a given. You are here to learn and see how your mentors and peers think. As time has showed, this statement fundamentally changed how I later prioritized different aspects of my education.

When your sole responsibility is to learn: the messier things are, the better you are for wading through and understanding them. Before E100A, I was turned off from a Professor working through a mistake in the lecture material. Up to that point, I stayed away from office hours because I figured that by the time I could formulate a question, I would have discovered the solution for myself (this was often true in undergraduate courses). Given what I know now, let me offer the following interpretation of both of these situations. In both, you might just catch the Professor/T.A./etc thinking rather than regurgitating prepared lecture material. I started to see learning in these terms: if you can replicate your teacher's thought process, you will be going along way towards a deeper understanding of the material.

Now that I have graduated, I offer the following advice to undergraduates. If you are looking to put A.S.A.P. status on learning something meaningful, learn how to identify when your peers and mentors are doing real thinking. (and soak it up!)

I learned this lesson late, but was still able to benefit as a researcher, teacher, and student. As a researcher, always attend group meetings and pay close attention to when people are trying to thrash out an unsolved problem. If you are lost, ask a stupid question (there is more to say on this point, and I will elaborate in another post). Engage those around you will probably help in their understanding of what is going on as well. (Aside: No one understands what is going on in research meetings. That is the whole point! ;) ). As a teacher, continue to learn as you teach. I T.A.ed a digital design course where the semester project changed from semester to semester. Staff meetings were essentially a block of face time with a professor and several other students in a setting where we were all trying to figure out how to bring a project spec together. Class time was a high-bandwidth stock exchange of questions between students, you and students, and students/other T.A.s. Regardless of how shy/outgoing you were as a student, being a teacher puts you in the center of a lot of communal thinking. As a student, always attend the less structured lectures (mostly towards the end of the semester) where the Professor walks through case studies that are related to the rest of the course. Many times, these will be problems that the Professor finds interesting. They will not likely appear in a textbook. Furthermore, the Professor will likely stumble around, which is an open window to seeing how he or she approaches problem solving.