While becoming an "estudiante del español,"
Phillip Wankat gets a refresher course on being a teacher.
When most professors look out at a classroom full of young and carefree
faces, they tend to forget how hard student life—where one is
continually judged—can be. But faculty can recapture those feelings
by taking a course in a subject outside the realm of their expertise.
The experience—while humbling—can enable a better understanding
of students' struggles and may even give professors an opportunity
to pick up some new teaching tools.
I have personally reconnected with student life by taking a course
in Spanish. And the experience has given me a refreshing view from the
other side of the lectern. For instance, I now understand why many engineering
students look tired after a lecture. After an hour of class, I find
myself exhausted. Also, I feel much less pressure working with other
students in a group than with the teacher, even though there are no
grades and she is nice. And I've noticed that all students welcome
some sort of comic relief during a rigorous class. We seem to laugh
a lot more in Spanish than in engineering classes.
After teaching the same course year after year, it can be easy to
forget how important it is to teach with enthusiasm and warmth. By the
end of my first Spanish class, the teacher knew all our names and reasons
for taking Spanish. When we arrive she greets us by name, and we all
say "adios" when we leave. She is always the first in the
classroom and seldom seems to be in a hurry to leave—she actually
seems to enjoy the class. Like engineering students, I invariably make
mistakes and need help. The teacher's comportment is important
here: If she were to yell at me or make me feel stupid for my mistakes,
I probably wouldn't return—so her kindness is highly valued.
I, in turn, am trying to be kinder in my engineering classes.
Summer vacation has also refreshed my memory of how easy it is to
forget. During the three-month break between the spring and fall semesters,
I managed to bury a tremendous amount of Spanish somewhere deep in my
mind. The first class back was painful because I didn't remember
much of what I had worked so hard to learn. Fortunately, much of it
resurfaced after a review. But now I understand why engineering students
seem to remember nothing at the start of the semester. As a student,
I have to keep reviewing material throughout the term until it sinks
in. But I know that it is not enough just to study—I must study
effectively. I tend to avoid doing the parts that are hardest and that
I most need to do—like speaking Spanish—and focus on activities
that I am better at—like reading. Now I better understand similar
behavior from my students.
To learn Spanish, much of the class needs to be in Spanish. Likewise,
in engineering, much of the class needs to use the language of engineers.
Often when learning my Spanish vocabulary, I find the one-word definition
in the verb book is more helpful than the thirty words the dictionary
uses. Other times I
need the more complete definition. Engineering students need resources
also, but many engineering textbooks are too detailed. So, while an
engineering professor needs to use simpler language on occasion, a good
teacher should try to be conscious of when the complete definition is
On the surface, it would seem that foreign language and engineering
require fundamentally different ways of learning. But I've found
that certain exercises I do in Spanish would work well in an engineering
course. In the "find mistakes" homework problems, the teacher
provides sentences with spelling or grammatical errors, and the students
find and correct these errors. Engineering professors could easily provide
flawed solutions to problems and ask students to find and correct the
All in all, the learning experience has been a rewarding struggle
that has started me on the path of communicating with another culture,
and has reminded me what it is like to be a student, albeit a very "average"
one. As a professor, I am now trying to help my students learn how to
communicate with the culture of engineers while I remember that they
Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering
and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering
at Purdue University.
He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.