UC Berkeley English Department

I was reading the UC Berkeley English department newsletter and was extremely proud to learn that the department boasts the highest number of professors to receive the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

“It is the highest teaching honor given by the university, and the selection process is rigorous: nominated candidates must pass through a meticulous review of student evaluations, course histories, grade distributions, statements from former students, and teaching philosophies. Finally, the candidates who emerge from these rings of fire are visited in class by members of the Academic Senate-appointed selection committee, who in turn debate the relative merits of each candidate before selecting the few deserving recipients. As a result of this stringent selection procedure, in the fifty or so years the award has been given, only about 240 teachers have won the thing. And among those 240 are 25 English professors. To put that figure in context, 25 is the same number of times that the second and third most awarded departments – Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Law – have won the award combined.”

I read through the list of 25 and recognized 5 names. I took classes from 4; I noted the class I took next to their names. And I was advised to major in English by the passionate Julian Boyd. I will forever be grateful to him as I think majoring in English was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

1980 Anne Middleton – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

1986 Janet Adelman – Literature in English

1993 Julian Boyd – advisor

2002 Jeffrey Knapp – Shakespeare

2009 Mitchell Breitwieser – American Novel

It’s so easy to dismiss English as a fluffy major, even at a prestigious school where the program is ranked #1 nationwide. At the time, I too, did not give the major the attention it deserved, splitting my time by double-majoring in a more analytical subject. And that, is probably one of my biggest regrets.

“The best English teachers are able to provide remarkably new insights into the most familiar materials…this mixture of enlightenment and estrangement may be unique to teaching literature. Reviewing the teaching philosophies of past DTA winners, a trend quickly emerges: English professors repeatedly stress the importance of questioning, uncertainty, and paradoxes as roads to insight. By contrast, faculty from other departments overwhelmingly emphasize the importance of having a firm grasp on the topic – thoroughly understanding the issue before attempting to communicate it to students. Of course, there’s nothing incompatible about a thorough understanding and an eye for complication. But unlike those subjects in which a teacher’s ability to explicate means the difference between success and failure, in English, explanation alone is insufficient.”

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