Michael Szenberg, Ph.D.

Teaching Philosophy

Passion and Craft, Service and Teaching: The Social Responsibility of Scholars
A Personal Perspective

by Michael Szenberg


Come to the edge, he said.
Come to the edge, he said
they said: we are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
They came.
He pushed them . . . and they flew.

— Guillaume Apollinaire

I give you the end of a golden string,
only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

— William Blake

Every Truth has four Corners.
As a teacher I gave you one corner,
and it is for you to find the other three.

— Confucius
  I touch the future. I teach.

— Christa McAuliffe

Much have I learned from my teachers,
More from my peers,
And mostly from my students.

— Taanit 7a

The only people for me are the mad ones,
The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk,
Mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time,
The ones who never yawn.

— Jack Kerouac

Rejections Energize Me

— Michael Szenberg


THE TEACHER AS MENTOR

Several years ago, I read a short, memorable poem by Robert Herrick. The poem, "Two Daffodils," juxtaposed flowers to human beings. As flowers are planted, they sprout, grow, bloom and then after some time, wither away. So do human beings. They are conceived, born, nurtured but then again, they too lose their vigor and vanish.

The comparison is fallacious. The history of the flow of ideas from the individual into an inventory of ideas and eventually into a plan of action is about people and their interrelationships with others. Moreover, human beings can acquire and transmit skills, ideas, perspectives and wisdom intergenerationally. This is not true of flowers. Only if society permits knowledge to decline will we diminish as human beings. The institutions that are indispensable to the production, preservation and dissemination of knowledge are the houses of learning, and the curators of the institutions are their teachers.

Early in my teaching career, I came across the story of the ancient master teacher R'Preida, who had to repeat each lesson to one of his students four hundred times before the student understood it. Once, the student still did not grasp the lesson, so R'Preida taught it to him again another four hundred times. A heavenly voice then emanated and declared that R'Preida should have four hundred years added to his life (Eruvin, 54b). R' C. Shmuelevitch points out that anyone reading the story is impressed by R' Preida's patience and devotion to the student. However, equally heroic is the attitude and perseverance of the student who listened to the same lesson eight hundred times till he understood it. In a recently published book, What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, the author states that most outstanding teachers believe two things fervently: that teaching matters and that students can learn. I share this view deeply.

No wonder that in ancient times, the craft of teaching was considered such a holy task that sages of the period argued that if not for the opportunity cost, teachers should receive no monetary compensation for their task. The most important thing in education is to educate against the notion advanced in Ecclesiastes, which states, "There is nothing new under the sun... vanity, vanity, all is vanity."

The Preida story, which influenced me, reinforced my attitude that teaching effectiveness is enhanced by the teacher's commitment to a service mission. This is particularly true of weaker students who require additional instruction, frequently on an individual basis.

John Travolta, the actor, once remarked that to be a successful actor one has to have "a quality of transparency, that his/her behavior should reveal his personal nature." Possession of such a quality is essential to anyone who aspires to be a master teacher because students then care deeply about him/her and relate with greater enthusiasm and zest to the subject matter taught.

For me, presence in the classroom invigorates and rejuvenates. How true for the Chinese proverb to observe that staying with blind people makes one blind. Learning with ever-newer groups of students makes me feel younger, even though biologically, I become older. A teacher can stake out a claim to the intellectual parenthood of a student and thus immortalize himself by helping a new generation to fulfill itself. The teacher has this tremendous power to open minds, to develop new perspectives; in fact, to change lives.

If there is any truth about power, it is this: The only way to retain it is to pass it on to others. Pablo Picasso, who had great difficulty in dealing with his mortality, did not attend his mother's funeral and told his teen-age son he was no longer welcome and should not visit him again because "I am old, and you are young." Picasso, great artist though he was, was deadly wrong. The way to extend the life horizon and indeed gain immortality is to delegate and transmit the insights and wisdom one has gained to the younger generation. To change Robert Frost's couplet, we can continue walking the miles even after "we go to sleep" by relaying the life baton to our children, students, and colleagues.

Plato proposed that we produce scholars by breeding them, much as we breed animals. Having teachers stroll beside students is a more congenial path. If the mind of a human being can be compared to an ember, then the function of the teacher is to fan the smoldering coals of young minds so that their cognitive and imaginative faculties are not only exercised but propelled ever forward. Teachers cannot give birth to the talents of students. But, as mentors, they can nurture students to reveal their talents and develop them fully. R'Zusha, a nineteenth-century master, told his disciples it is the duty, indeed, the moral obligation of every individual to develop his/her potential to the fullest. Zusha pointed out that when he is called before the Heavenly Court he will not be asked why he did not become Moses but whether he employed his energy and endowments to become Zusha. . In other words, we are to be judged by the distance we bridge between the actual and the potential self. It is the task of a committed parent and teacher to educate, influence and help close the distance between the actual and the potential self of students. In the absence of these guiding hands, distress, sorrow and regrets follow. The nineteenth-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier expressed it best when he wrote the following memorable and evincing lines:


For all sad words of
tongue or pen
The saddest are these: "It
might have been!"
I adhere to the medieval philosopher Maimonides' comment that a teacher must love his/her students as if they were his/her own sons or daughters in that the teacher must be other-absorbed, not self-absorbed. In previous generations it was perhaps more difficult to understand what it meant for teachers to love their students. In our generation, the situation is different. Students are away either geographically or emotionally from their families. Therefore, the teacher, even on the graduate level (including the doctoral program) is often counted on to provide a support system. I believe that an expression of approval for students, when warranted, can literally change attitudes and behaviors. I work hard to inspire curiosity in students, instill critical thinking in them, and push them to be task oriented so that their life will be vital, interesting, challenging, productive, and fulfilling. It is all about striving for perfection while at the same time,being fully aware that perfection is unattainable. Artie Shaw, the great clarinetist, offered this thought about flawless perfect performance, "Maybe twice in my life I reached what I wanted to (in the piece of music "These Foolish Things"). At the end, the band stops and I play a little cadenza. That cadenza — no one can do it better. Let's say it is five bars. That's a very good thing to have done in a lifetime. An artist should be judged by his best, just as an athlete is. Pick out one or two best things and say, "That's what he did: all the rest was rehearsal." Because there is this tension between striving for perfection and never reaching it, no scientist or artist is satisfied. We owe to Martha Graham the following central insight on the subject: "There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

Trumpeter Clark Terry has this to say of Duke Ellington, "He wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming. He doesn't even like to write definitive endings to a piece. He'd often ask us to come up with ideas for closings, but when he'd settled on one of them, he'd keep fooling with it. He always likes to make the end of a song sound as if it's still going somewhere." (Nat Hentoff, American Music Is, New York, De Capo Press, 2004, XIX). My love affair with biographical writings is stimulated by my attraction to scientists and artists who are in a constant state of becoming. When Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, was asked why he continued to practice four hours a day at the age of ninety-three, he said, "Because I think I can still make some progress." When another famous cellist Janos Starker was young his mother trained a parrot to squawk: "Practice, Janos, practice!"

In fact, in order to be a teacher, one must always remain a student willing to learn, aspire to higher reaches of intellect, and most importantly, readily acknowledge "I don't know." The realization of how much remains to be learned should humble us all. Since there are always some teaching procedures, skills and techniques with which I am not familiar, I have participated in workshops and seminars to continually upgrade my skills as a teacher.

A story is told of the ancient master teacher R' Yochanan Ben Zakkai who wept uncontrollably when he realized that death was near. When his disciples asked him why he was crying, he responded that he did not know whether he would be led to paradise or to hell. The disciples countered that for sure their teacher's righteous behavior on earth would bring him immediately to paradise. The master then explained that he wept because he wondered whether the behavior of his students after his death would bring credit to him as their teacher. In other words, the behavior of students affects the reward or punishment the teacher receives.

I consider myself primarily a teacher. Teaching duties obviously delight me. I love teaching with a passion. I find it very hard to imagine life without it. It is what I have always wanted to do. It has become absolutely central to my research work and my life. For me, teaching is not a job but a calling. The contact with students is stimulating and provides sustenance to my intellectual and emotional life. I am repeatedly challenged by new generations of students who show me that problems I think have been solved must be re-examined in new ways. It is a renewing, rewarding and exhilarating experience. It is the same kind of thrill one obtains while engaging in research and suddenly understanding something no one else does at the moment, or successfully applying concepts and ideas learned to the world of business. I am looking for ways these supposedly different worlds of teaching, research and business nurture each other. This is how the boundaries of scholarship are extended. A person cannot learn, grow and accumulate knowledge without students to share it with; the two are inseparable. The kindling of creative impulses results not only from an environment that encourages interaction among learners, but also from the interaction between teacher and student. The ancient sages declared: "Give me death or students [to study with]." The best teachers are those who place their heart, body, and soul into the art of teaching. As R'Y. Hutner observed, their teaching is then comparable to the food delivered by a nursing mother.

An instructor who aspires to be a master teacher must appreciate his/her students, discover their potential and encourage them to exert efforts in this direction. R' Avi Weiss relates a lesson he learned from R' Ahron Soloveichik. He distinguished between legal ownership and psychological ownership. A master teacher besides legal ownership is psychologically committed to his/her students and grows along with them. In other words, such a teacher possesses what R' Daniel Lapin calls a Connectivity Quotient (CQ). Teachers with a high CQ love to interact with students and what is equally important their students reach higher levels of scholarly performance. The same is true in business. Employees interacting with high connectivity executives outshine those who work for lower CQ managers.

A learned scholar of the nineteenth century R'Simcha Bunim of Pshischa instructed his students to keep two notes in their pockets. One note from Sanhedrin 37b states, "For my sake the world was created." The other from Genesis 13:27 reads, "I am dust and ashes." When the student experiences a bout of insecurity, the note that states "For my sake the world was created" should elevate and boost him or her. When high achievement breeds arrogance and self-importance, one should take out the note that says" I am dust and ashes" as a means to deflate the ego. Let the student remember, as Ralf Dahrendorf reminds us, "We have the weapons we need - our minds."

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, "Finding Flow - The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life," he explains how to reach "effortless concentration." In his words: "Imagine that you are skiing down a slope and your full attention is focused on the movements of your body, the position of the skis, the air whistling past your face, down in the snow-shrouded tress running by. There is no room in your awareness for conflicts or contradictions; you know that a distracting thought or emotion might get you buried face down in the snow. The run is so perfect that your want it to last forever. If skiing does not mean much to you, this complete immersion in an experience could occur while you are singing in a choir, dancing, playing bridge, or reading a good book. If you love your job, it could happen during a complicated surgical operation or a close business deal. It may occur in a social interaction, when talking with a good friend, or while playing with a baby. Moments such as these provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life."

I experience many such moments in all three areas of academic endeavors. But this is especially so in teaching because it involves interaction with young minds. What is teaching if not to communicate, build and advance a nurturing relationship with students. Also, the process of learning can be enhanced by developing what Theodore Reik calls "the third ear." This is the compassionate and empathetic ear of the teacher which leads to a creative dialogue between the student and teacher.

I tell my students what it means to be diligent via a story told by R'David Goldwasser. A visitor from a neighboring city once came to R' Shmelke of Nikolsburg. He had heard of the diligence in study of the students in the Nikolsburg Yeshiva and wanted to observe it. He asked R' Shmelke if he could show him around the yeshiva. Early one morning, before dawn, R' Shmelke escorted the visitor into the House of Learning. As they entered, they saw that one of the students had rolled up his coat to use it as a pillow and was sleeping on the bench. The visitor remarked: "What diligence in learning! He does not waste time going to his room and sleeps right here near his learning!" R' Shmelke retorted, "That's not called diligence. Had he fallen asleep with his head resting on the podium that would be diligence. This student seems to have taken the time to roll up his coat for a pillow and settled himself comfortably in position on the bench."

REJECTIONS ENERGIZE ME

Of course diligence and talent are important, but what is more important, so I tell my students, is mental toughness, character, passion and the desire to win. We need these elements in order to cope with rejections. All of us face rejections. It is good to remember that as a famous study details, successful people face more rejections than unsuccessful people. In fact, I frequently welcome rejections because I strongly believe that nature does not tolerate imbalances. And after rejections — acceptances must follow. My friend Germaine Hodges, after my elaboration on this point, remarked that "the first law of thermodynamics is something like — energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed. So, you take the negative energy of a rejection and transform it into positive energy." Therefore, Rejections Energize Me.

I am trying to convey my own excitement about economics, my own conviction that economics has something very special to offer. One does not teach a subject. Economics should be seen less as an abstract science and more for what it is: the product of humans with diverse backgrounds, personalities and thoughts regarding individuals and society. Students should be exposed to a cohesive, ethical and viable view of the world which offers their lives direction. One should remember that at one time, there was only one all embracing discipline — philosophy — love of wisdom. My bias is toward the talmudic teaching that "the highest wisdom is kindness." Extending kindness to others is elevating and moving. If we think about this in a deeper sense we realize that only a few chosen ones have the talent of Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Paul A. Samuelson, or Michael Jordan. We easily recognize that we cannot reach the heights of these individuals but everyone can be kind. Everyone has the capacity to be helpful to others. Our mission is to search out and pursue the objective of extending goodness, compassion, and convey words of encouragement to others. Kindness can also be extended through sharing our imaginations and our efforts. How insightful it is for Ethics of the Fathers to note that envy in the realm of the intellectual pursuit, in contrast to jealousy of material objects, is to be cherished because it leads to the enhancement of wisdom. By the same token to be envious of charitable and kind deeds of others encourages us to develop these activities as well. Maimonides stated that every individual should view the world as half good and half evil, so that any good deed on his/her part will transform the world.

Richard D. Heffner, Professor of Communications and Public Policy at Rutgers University and the host of close to fifty years of "The Open Mind" on the air recalls (in a New York Times interview, December 15, 2003) his Columbia famous history teacher, Jacques Barzun remarking to him, "Mr. Heffner, can't you do something about those ugly pimples on your face?" Because of this mean and cruel comment Heffner states "I find it difficult to go back to the Columbia campus." Indeed, words do count! King Solomon, the wisest of men, might have had such hurtful remarks in mind when he stated, "There are those who issue utterances and it like the stabbing of a sword" (Proverbs, Chapter 12, Verse 18).

I have sincere respect for each and every student because lasting learning can only take place in a warm, enjoyable atmosphere. I do not see myself merely as a presenter of knowledge, but rather as a guide on a journey, the purpose of which is the search, acquisition, and wise use of knowledge. I make this possible because I bring to the journey the lessons I have learned from my many diverse experiences, under four extremely different economic-political systems spanning three continents: child in hiding from persecution, assembly line worker, electrician, cadet captain of a military school, soldier at war, aeronautics engineer, owner of an export-import company, representative of Brazilian interests purchasing Dresser Industries abrasive wheel facilities in Massachusetts, consultant to governmental agencies, banks and universities, author of many books and articles, associate and later editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal, The American Economist, advisor to a Latin American industrial tycoon, Director of the Center for Applied Research and chairperson of the Finance and Economics Department at Lubin School of Business, Pace University and volunteer to service agencies. The only way one can explain these diverse activities is that I am passionate about what I do and not that interested in sleeping. And, of course, there is tremendous joy in the anticipation and in the expectation of first thinking and then the subsequent unfolding of new projects.

I have witnessed not only the most extreme forms of human bestiality in the history of humankind, but also heroism, nobility of spirit, generosity, kindness and even saintly behavior. One needs only to observe the darkest side of human life in its variety to appreciate most deeply its bright and lighter side. Victor Frankl had this to say in his book, Man's Search for Meaning (Basic Books, 1985, 85) about his experiences in Auschwitz, "everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

THE TWO OBJECTIVES OF TEACHING

My objective is to try not only to raise the intellectual level of every student, but also to widen at the same time the differential in the achievement level between the average and the most talented students.

CHOICE OF TECHNIQUE

The selection of a teaching technique and the specific examples used in the classroom depend on the experience of students. This I learn at the beginning of the first class each semester when the students are asked to introduce themselves by describing their educational background, work experience, and the nature of their current job. Also, students are requested to select a permanent seat for the duration of the semester and, when possible, to sit in a semi-circle so that the students face one another. I pass out index cards and ask the students to provide me and their classmates with information about their background and their aspirations. What is more important, I ask them to put away the pen and paper and think how they wish to describe themselves in no more than four or five sentences. After the minutes are over, I ask them to put it on paper and be aware that when they go for an employment interview, they will be asked such a question, so it is better to commit their response to memory. This exercise enables me to identify the weak as well as the superior students. I want to connect with the students most in need of my individual attention. I meet with them individually outside of the classroom to see that they are keeping up with the rest of the class and especially to be a source of moral support. A seating chart is then established. This enables me to learn the names of each student quickly. At the end of each class, students fill out a form entitled "Instantaneous and Thoughtful Reaction to Class." The form has three questions:

  1. Based on this week's class, what were your two most important learning points or ideas?
  2. What is the most significant question remaining in your mind from today's class?
  3. Any suggestions and wishes for future classes?
The first few minutes in the next class (15-20 minutes) revolve around the responses to the above questions.

In addition, I ask my students, following what Ian Harvey, the chief executive of BTG, requests of his executive committee of senior managers to tell him "two things I should stop doing, two things I should keep doing and two things I should start doing."

Upon entering the classroom, I see myself extending learning strings to each and every student. I feel I must do everything possible to prevent these strings from being cut, despite the fact that the span of attention of the human mind is rather short. I do it by always moving about in an animated way, never sitting down, never reading from notes, using the board for graphs and central points in a logical ordered way, repeating those points, teaching with aphorisms, allegorical statements, and , above all, explaining the concepts learned by using current, interesting examples with which the students are familiar. The classroom technique I use consists of a combination of lecture, structured discussion, projects and case studies. The purpose is to provide not only a comprehensive and lucid course but also depth in the constructs. To maximize class time, a detailed syllabus and numerous handouts, designed to provide continuity, are placed in Blackboard for the students. Major home projects are constructed to integrate distinctive aspects of the subject matter. Each time new tools are taught, emphasis is placed on the use of those tools. A packet of problems is given out and must be solved. Solutions to the problems are distributed at the end of the semester.

As an aesthetic touch, I like to introduce each lecture with a short quote. For example, when discussing statistics, I quote the Nobelist Ronald Coase, "If you torture sufficiently the data, you can prove anything", or when I discuss the importance of writing assignments, the quote of Leo Tolstoy is very insightful: "One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot, each time one dips one's pen." As for the importance of brevity there is the story of George C. Marshall, the secretary of state under President Truman, who instructed George Kennan to develop a plan to save Western Europe from the Soviet Union expansionist designs in the immediate post WWII period. His only and very memorable suggestion was: "avoid trivia."

My lectures provide many opportunities for student participation and valuable student feedback. To ensure that my students and I stay on the same wavelength, I pause from time to time during the presentation and ask probing, specific questions requiring a detailed response. Credit is offered for good answers and especially for good questions raised by students. As for testing and evaluating the work of students, it is based on a combination of home projects, class participation, and tests consisting of problems, essays and short answers.

My anecdotes and asides (always relevant to the topic of discussion) arise from a considered vision of my research, and of economics in general, as a dynamic part of the larger process of human inquiry. In my lectures, I constantly pause to ask myself and my students, just what it is economists and businessmen do, how they learn, and to what extent they are justified in believing the stories they assemble and propagate.

Someone has shown that several of the world's greatest scientists came from the same European city. Upon further inquiry, it was found that they all had the same teacher who provided the students with a broad perspective on life. In other words, teaching means taking oneself beyond self-involvement. This is exactly what I aim to do.

INTEGRATION OF BUSINESS THEORY AND PRACTICE

Throughout the semester, emphasis is placed on the integration of contemporary business theory and practice. For example, in my managerial economics class, a different industry is selected each semester for in-depth analysis of specific problems affecting that industry. Past analyses have included the steel, book, telecommunications, oil, jeans, banking and shoe industries. The best student papers are revised, as necessary, and then submitted by me to various professional organizations for possible presentation at their conferences by the students. Several students' papers have been published in conference proceedings and in refereed journals. During the year there are always books published that analyze in greater depth some of the aspects covered in the course. I offer these books to students, who are also familiar with the topics covered from their work experience, to read and review the books for publication in different journals.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Brahms is supposed to have said that the purpose of art is to electrify the soul with a flashlight. I aim to touch the soul of people. Many stress that both the faculty's roles and companies' functions are changing. I believe that to be true. But, I also believe in the constancy of the teacher's task to provide an ethical compass of how to use the knowledge gained in school and connect with the question of how to live a life. I can relate well to what George Bernard Shaw wrote in his dedicatory letter for Man and Superman: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."