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Home Videos on Teaching Oral Histories SeriesJeffrey Bergen
DePaul Faculty Oral Histories: Jeffrey Bergen

Browse the videos below to hear Jeffrey Bergen, Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS), discuss some of his biggest teaching challenges and influences.


My Biggest Teaching Challenge: Teaching with Enthusiasm

Featured Faculty Member: Jeffrey Bergen of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS).
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: H. Jean Bryan

From the Transcript

When I teach lower level courses or developmental courses, essentially, I think, one has to be enthusiastic. Because if I'm not enthusiastic about the material, and if they've had bad experiences with mathematics in the past, there's no reason in the world that they're going to be enthusiastic.

So I may come off as perhaps excessively geeky, but I mean that's a small price to pay in that, if the students think you're enthusiastic or if you're trying as hard as you can to show why the course is interesting or useful or has exciting ideas, then they're much more likely to stick with you on the ride.




My Biggest Teaching Challenge: Having Many Different Perspectives

Featured Faculty Member: Jeffrey Bergen of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS).
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: H. Jean Bryan

From the Transcript

As I commented, in recent years, or should I say differing from when I first got here, the approach is to look at problems from many, many different perspectives.

When I took calculus in the '70s and when I started teaching here in the '80s, calculus was very much an algebraic exercise. And as things have changed in the approach towards teaching calculus, as I said before, things are much more numerical, which means what you can do and teach in M.A.M.Ed. class . . . on the one hand you could present these different techniques to give the weaker students—or better perhaps to say the students who have less of a math background—give them different ways to see the problems, whereas students with a stronger background, they can view it as different ways that they can take it back into the classroom. So, different students in the class, some may be learning it based upon what you're doing and others may be learning how to teach it based upon what you're doing, but you have to make sure that once everybody gets the basics there's something there for kind of everyone to grab on to.




My Biggest Teaching Challenge: The Student/Teacher Relationship

Featured Faculty Member: Jeffrey Bergen of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS).
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: H. Jean Bryan

From the Transcript

The interaction between student and teacher is a relationship. I mean, it's not the same relationship as between spouses or siblings, but I mean it is a relationship and the key to a successful relationship is understanding the other's expectations.

So there are teachers who can assign a lot of work and can grade very hard and be sort of the nasty hard teacher, but as long as you make it clear what your expectations are and as long as the students know that that's what to expect, everything will work out just fine. Unless your expectations are completely unreasonable. But as long as the students know what to expect from you, you can ask quite a lot from them. I think the worst courses I've had were where the professor . . . so, when I was a student, the worst classes were where the professor was very unclear about what the reading assignments were, or what the exams were going to be on, or what the grading scale was. So, I think one of the keys to successful teaching, is to make your expectations clear. Don't flip flop in the middle of the course on homework policy, or on attendance policy. I mean, obviously if an emergency comes up, you have to be adaptable, but you really need to know what to let students know what to expect.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: Learning Through Teaching

Featured Faculty Member: Jeffrey Bergen of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS).
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: H. Jean Bryan

From the Transcript

I became a much, much more successful graduate student once I started teaching than before I was teaching because I was very paranoid as a first year teacher.

And this is when I was teaching as a grad student. Because I was convinced, having not been particularly successful in my first years of graduate school, that all the undergraduates at the University of Chicago were going to be much smarter than I was. And I figured, okay, well they may be smarter than I am, but they're not going to be better prepared than I am. So I perhaps put more time into preparing lectures than I should have, although perhaps as a first year teacher it made sense and I basically understood the subject to a point . . . I mean it was just calculus, but I understood the subject to a point where I never understood it before, because I wanted to anticipate any reasonable question that could come up, I wanted to anticipate any unreasonable question that could come up and give a good coherent answer regardless of what the question was. Then I realized that's actually how you do research. When you're reading a math paper, when you're reading a math book, the thing to do is act as if you're going to lecture on it, act as if you're going to teach it, and be able to anticipate any reasonable question.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: Learning What Not to Do

Featured Faculty Member: Jeffrey Bergen of the Department of Mathematical Sciences (LAS).
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Heather Banas
Interviewer: H. Jean Bryan

From the Transcript

Interestingly enough, and I won't mention names, it's probably some of the bad teachers I've had who had a bigger influence. The really good teachers, I think, make it seem so effortless, you don't really know what they're doing or you don't really know what goes on behind the scenes.

So to use the old line, “You don't need to see how the sausage is made, you just want the finished product.” So for the really good teachers, it's not clear what's going on. For the really poor teachers, oftentimes lectures were not well prepared, exams were not well thought out, grading policy was adapted in the middle of the quarter. Occasionally I could find myself in classes where there were some logical gaps in the grading policies which I could as an undergraduate use to my advantage, and I said to myself “if I'm ever going to be a teacher, these are things that I'm not going to let happen.” So in some sense, it's the mistakes of some poor teachers, which again I think were poor preparation and not making their expectations clear. I learned that that's something I want to stay away from. The really good teachers have . . . I mean, the phrase that I would use is that spontaneity requires great preparation. They seem to be very spontaneous because they're so well versed in the subject and they're so well prepared, that they can handle anything that comes up. Any sort of interesting question, any sort of mistake that a student has made somewhere, can actually be a launching point for an interesting discussion. But they can do that and they can be spontaneous only because they're so well prepared. And in some classes where the professor is not as well prepared I think you get the comment from students of, “Well he or she really knows their stuff but they don't know how to teach it.” And I think that's really not quite the point. I think in classes like that, the teacher knows the subject well enough that they could get a good grade in the class, but really doesn't know it well enough to give multiple explanations to the class, to be able to take a student's mistake, understand where it came from, and use that to build upon. So I've never really quite bought the line of, “someone is really smart but doesn't know how to teach.” I think it's they really don't know the subject to the level that you need to teach it. Because to teach a subject properly you need to know it a heck of a lot better than you did just to get a good grade in the class.