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Teaching Students, Not Texts

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.393.1 - 2.393.9

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Scot Douglass

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3561

Teaching Students, Not Texts

Scot Douglass Herbst Humanities Program, University of Colorado--Boulder

Context “What works and doesn’t work?” in the integration of an engineering curriculum with the humanities has been a question we’ve been asking since the fall of 1989 when the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, began a new and innovative program of Humanities for Engineers. This program was made possible by the generous gift of an alumnus, Clarence Herbst, Jr. (Ch. E., ‘50). Now in its eighth year, the program, with a faculty of four, has become an established part of the college’s culture. Offered as an upper-division elective, our main, two semester seminar interacts with approximately a fifth of the juniors and seniors amongst the college’s twenty-four hundred under-graduate students. Our experience, of course, has been a mixed one and we have made many methodological and curricular adjustments and changes. Currently we enjoy a popular standing amongst students-- there is a waiting list to get in the program--and a certain sense of satisfaction as teachers.

Framing the Question The past three years of the Herbst program has seen almost a complete turn over in faculty--an extended leave, law school, a new direction, all concurrent with program expansion. Although the director and co-founder, Athanasios Moulakis, has remained, none of the other current teachers were here four years ago. During the transition years, the suggestions of new faculty for the common curriculum were regularly greeted with a variation of the following: “Oh, we tried that; it didn’t work.” As more new blood infused more “old” ideas, a new question surfaced: “What do we mean ‘it didn’t work?’” Had texts and methods been discarded in the early years because experience had yet to inform expectations? Did allegiance to certain methods preclude certain texts which otherwise, using different methods, would “work?”

Before we could answer the question, “Did it work?” other questions laid claim to a prior necessity. Foundational issues and concerns resurfaced and, on a retreat, the new faculty began its own pedagogical discourse informed by, but separate from the one it had inherited.

A preliminary question which probes one’s central conception of what it means to teach is “Has the teacher taught if the student hasn’t learned?” Attempts to arrive at an answer have proven, at least for me and colleagues of mine, productively inconclusive.

The simple answer, “No, if the student hasn’t learned, I haven’t taught,” has a certain chivalrous ring, but does not satisfy for a number of reasons. To always be true, it must posit a universal, ideal student whose desire to learn, even if buried but accessible, is so great that only bad teaching can stand in its way. The voice of Epictetus cries over the centuries, “You have set yourself up for unhappiness if your success as a teacher depends upon factors outside of your control.” If a miserable semester follows a wonderful semester, is it fair to say, “I did everything

Douglass, S. (1997, June), Teaching Students, Not Texts Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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