Professor Joanna Picciotto’s Speech at the 2012 Distinguished Teaching Award Ceremony

Joanna Picciotto, Associate Professor of English, received the Distinguished Teaching Award at a ceremony on April 26, 2012. This is the 26th Distinguished Teaching Award won by members of the English Department. We have won more DTAs than any other department, a record of which we can be justly proud.

The Berkeley campus’ most prestigious award for teaching, the Distinguished Teaching Award is intended to encourage and recognize individual excellence in teaching. Such teaching rises above good teaching: it incites intellectual curiosity in students, engages them thoroughly in the enterprise of learning, and has a life-long impact. While acknowledging the fact that the Berkeley faculty comprises many outstanding teachers, the Committee on Teaching is extremely selective in determining the recipients of this award: only 240 faculty have received the award since its inception in 1959.

What follows is Professor Picciotto’s acceptance speech from that ceremony:

Earlier this week I was reading a news story about soaring student debt, and – perhaps foolishly – I ventured into the comment section where, in a dynamic familiar to all of us, the grounds of the discussion had shifted to the unjustifiable luxury of “niche and boutique course offerings” in this time of austerity. As one commenter put it: “If you want a degree in a discipline that will not result in a well paying job, then you might want to consider just studying on your own. At some point in your life, you have to assume responsibility for the decisions you make.”

I want to take this opportunity to recognize the enormous sacrifices – sacrifices of money, time, energy, and, this month, sleep – that my undergraduate and graduate students have made and continue to make precisely in order to meet their responsibilities to other people, many of whom have been dead for a very long time. By lavishing attention on their writings – even taking the time to master antiquated knowledge-systems in order to enter into their thoughts more fully – my students are providing the people they study with what John Milton called “a life beyond life.” In doing so, my students are honoring their responsibilities as members not just of an economy but a civilization.

Civilized life requires that we learn not just to support ourselves but to relinquish ourselves. To be a serious reader – which every university student must become – means being continually on loan to other consciousnesses. The work of hosting other minds demands habits of attention, discipline, and receptivity that can’t be cultivated in solitude – they’re developed through writing and talking and listening to others. The result of all this writing and talking and listening is rarely satisfactory, because the process is never over. I don’t think any of us ever feels that we’re doing enough for it or getting enough from it. A year after a class ends, we might only retain a dim outline of an argument that in fact we were never able to grasp whole – “certain illegible traces, like chalk dust on a blackboard after it’s been erased.”[1]

I’ve just started quoting from a John Ashbery poem – a prose poem that one of my students introduced me to and that several of them are teaching me how to read. I’d like to conclude by reading a bit more of it:

“So we must learn to recognize it as the form – the only one – in which such fragments of the true learning as we are destined to receive will be vouchsafed to us, if at all. The unsatisfactoriness, the frowns and squinting, the itching and scratching as you listen without taking in what is being said to you, or only in part, so that you cannot piece the argument together, should not be dismissed as signs of our chronic all-too-human weakness but welcomed and examined as signs of life in which part of the whole truth lies buried. And as the discourse continues and you think you are not getting anything out of it, as you yawn and rub your eyes and pick your nose or scratch your head, or nudge your neighbor on the hard wooden bench, this knowledge is getting through to you, and taking just the forms it needs to impress itself upon you, the forms of your inattention and incapacity or unwillingness to understand. For it is certain you will rise from the bench a new person, and even before you have emerged into the full daylight of the street you will feel that a change has begun to operate in you.”

This passage reminds me of how I used to feel leaving school at the end of the day when I was young and felt like I was in the middle of an endless conversion. But it also describes how I feel on most Thursdays after a long bout of office hours, and I have my students to thank for this. Thank you so much.

[1] John Ashbery, “The System,” Three Poems (Echo Press, 1989).