Thomas L. Schwenk, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan called this book a “chrestomathy.” I call it a toilet tanker. A chrestomathy is “a collection of choice passages from an author.” A toiler tanker finds its ideal place on the tank of a toilet, where it can be perused in comfort for periods of indeterminate time. It is any book which can be picked up, opened at random and counted upon to provide entertainment, insight or both. Collections of famous quotations, books of lists, short movie reviews, sports statistics, love letters and very short detective thrillers all qualify. Schwenk and I are both right in our assessments of Neal Whitman’s alphabetically organized inventory of pithy remarks about teaching. The book runs its course from Adult Learning Principles to Wait Times (how long you should give a class to come up with the answer to a question, not how long you should expect to await a triage assessment in the Emergency Room of a major hospital).
Whitman is good at what he does, which is to “teach teachers how to teach.” His stated purpose as a teacher is to “inspire” and to “challenge.” Imparting information ranks a rather distant third. That is very good advice, especially if words like “inspire” are not reduced to terms such as “motivate.” It may be foolish of me, but I choose to believe that college students are adults and that they are in class for reasons other than to avoid dreary waits in an unemployment line. So, it should not be necessary to motivate them, in the sense of prodding and poking them until this display signs of life, but to assume that they are already alive and to show them how to make their lives better, to put some “spirit” into them.
Teachers who are novices, barely out of the student role themselves, will find many helpful hints in Creative Medical Teaching. Moreover, they will find it useful regardless of their specific field of expertise. So will those like me who are at, or past, the normal age of retirement.
Whitman’s own specialty is, as the title suggests, medicine; but teaching is teaching and so, while the book might have special relevance to, say, college and university programs leading to a BScN or an MD, it is also valuable for teachers of literature or engineering, accounting or zoology.
In fact, by way of open disclosure, this book came to me through a circuitous route. Neal Whitman taught for years at the University of Utah’s Medical School, but he came to my attention when he e-mailed me about something I had written on the subject of Japanese poetry. He is, as it happens, a published poet as well as an educator, and for this reason his expertise is not limited to a specific discipline or vocation. Anyone who can help teachers whose work will involve diagnosing and treating medical ailments and who also has valuable things to say about aesthetics knows something we can all profit from hearing and reading.
In Whitman’s case, that extra something can be nicely captured in the first word of the title. The author is a creative man, and he imparts much more than information, never mind stale formulae about the ten cleverest things to say to a class on the first day of the semester, or the most administratively acceptable way to shoehorn verbs into lists of learning objectives. Creativity, as Whitman embodies the concept, seems to me to be less a “what” than a “how.” It seems like less of a noun than a verb. It relies on all the things that teachers are assumed to have: knowledge of their field, enthusiasm for their subject matter, and a willingness to stand before a class or sit with a single student and display a most delicate combination of confidence and modesty—demonstrating what it is to be a good student by refusing to pretend that we have asked all the questions, never mind acquired all the answers.
Creativity also implies the acceptance of difference. No two teachers are alike—except perhaps for two bad teachers. Mediocrity is found in standard packages and there is a stifling similarity in those who learn their teaching methods from a textbook. Neal Whitman, in a collection of anecdotes, definitions, examples and concise quotations, exhibits a personality, and it is in the personality of a fine teacher that creativity ultimately resides.
We can, I would like to think, all remember our finest teachers, the ones who genuinely inspired us, whether we learned anything repeatable on a test from them or not. So, I can name an occasional elementary or high school teacher who mattered, and I can provide a short catalogue of scholars including Gregory Bateson, Henry S. Kariel and Abraham Kaplan who showed me what it was to be a scientist, a political theorist and a philosopher by degrees. When we are at our best, we do not imitate our betters, but we allow the best to emerge from our own unique packets and patterns of experience.
So, when I read Creative Medical Teaching, I did not learn anything startlingly new from Neal Whitman. As well, although I teach aspirant nurses, I do not teach them medicine. But what did happen was this: Neal Whitman reminded me of some things that I may once have known but had perhaps forgotten, and he revived some genuine feelings that may have become a trifle tired. Mostly, he reminded me of what it felt like to be a student, and to have been blessed with a few good teachers. If nothing else, that is a valuable lesson to be learned and relearned and learned once again. That it came from a man who urges professors of medicine to put Chekhov’s A Doctor’s Visit, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Turgenev’s The Condemned Librarian and Updike’s A Country Doctor in their syllabi, should not be surprising.
Howard A. Doughty was the founding editor of The College Quarterly. He is now book review editor of both The College Quarterly and The Innovation Journal, while splitting his time between his work as a professor of political economy at Seneca College and as a Steward for OPSEU Local 560 at Seneca College. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.