How to Teach Well

David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history. Kennedy has written over ten books; his first, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), won the John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1970 and the Bancroft Prize in 1971. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) and won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Other awards include the Francis Parkman Prize, the Ambassador's Prize and the California Gold Medal for Literature, all of which he received in the year 2000. Kennedy was educated at Stanford and Yale. The author of many articles, he has also penned a textbook, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, now in its thirteenth edition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  • Transcript


David Kennedy: Teaching is a very difficult thing to do well, and it takes an enormous amount of energy, and time, and what you might call just generally psychic resources. I’ve recently learned to fly an airplane, and I have a flight instructor. And teaching a 60 year old guy to fly an airplane is a pretty challenging assignment. And we talk a lot, he and I, about the nature of teaching. Now he’s teaching me a technique and a set of rules and practices and so on. I try to teach people habits of mind and methods of inquiry and so on. So it’s quite different results that we’re aiming at. But when he and I, when we’re up there in the airplane, we have a lot of occasion to discuss what works. What’s effective teaching? How do you really make someone internalize an understanding of something that’s new and exotic to them? And maybe there’s something we ourselves don’t understand perfectly, although we have a better understanding than the student – maybe not a perfect understanding. How do you guide someone to enter a domain of knowledge or a field of expertise in which you’re ahead of them, but maybe not absolutely terrific at it? Those are big challenges, and I’m still learning how to do it I think. I once heard a lecture from a British professor whose name is escaping me at the moment. And he said he began every . . . he was a literature professor. He began every new course that he taught by announcing to the students, “I know a whale of a lot about English literature and you don’t. And my objective is to change that equation in your favor.” And that is a pretty good, rough and ready definition about what my idea of teaching is about.

Recorded on: 7/4/07