Williams College

Unplanned Lessons: Learning from Mistakes

Unplanned Lessons: Learning from Mistakes

Williams English professor Peter Murphy in his office with students.
Williams English professor Peter Murphy in his office with students. Photo by Kevin Kennefick.

Professors impart knowledge; students receive it. That’s the basic contract at any institution of higher learning. But sometimes, without anyone being immediately conscious of it, the flow of learning reverses—and students teach something to their professors.

Take the experience of English Professor Peter Murphy, who was recently named Dean of the Faculty. As a relatively new assistant professor at Williams in the 1980s, he was struck by a remark made by a student during a meeting on the subject of teaching.

“You know what bothers me?” the student asked. “Professors are always critiquing our problems and faults, but the professors are so resistant to admitting their own mistakes.”

Murphy remembers thinking, “He’s right. It does seem wrong that I wouldn’t think of things that I say in the same way I think of things that students say.”

It was a moment of revelation for Murphy, who used to feel “panicked” before his literature classes. “You’re so terrified when you’re young,” he says. “You’re thinking all the time that you have to be smarter and faster and assert your authority, when in fact the authority comes not from being right but from running the seminar and allowing the students authority—allowing them to participate in a collaborative way.”

The student’s observation made Murphy realize it was OK to make mistakes; in fact, it made classes more interesting. “I could ask my classes actual questions instead of questions to which I already knew the answer. I could be wrong or the students could be wrong, and together we could figure out what was right.

“If you go in thinking, ‘I must impart this great lesson,’” Murphy adds, “there’s a terrible pressure. Plus you screw it up about half the time.”

This story was originally published in the Williams Alumni Review as part of “Unplanned Lessons,” by Zelda Stern.  (For a text-only version, click here.)