In Deborah Davis’ courses, ‘nothing is fixed’
In her classes on contemporary Chinese society, sociology professor Deborah Davis says her students’ questions not only help to guide what she teaches, but also inform her own research. Honored with the 2013 Lex Hixon ’63 Teaching Prize for Excellence in the Social Sciences, Davis hopes her students realize that in the social sciences, they’ll always have to test new hypotheses and re-examine the evidence.
What are the primary sources of inspiration for you in your teaching?
There are many, but students are the most constant source because they push you to explore questions that you had never previously considered and suggest explanations that are often totally original. Whether it is in lecture or during office hours one is always in dialogue with students and from that dialogue you become a better teacher.
What have your students taught you?
When the students themselves in the study of China become the subjects, as it were, then of course they are a source of information, in a way — information that I have no other way to get. But it’s the dialogue — that is, the students ask you questions that you never thought of, and of course they force you or inspire you to give answers that you never would have gotten by yourself. That’s why those of us who enjoy teaching love teaching. You’re just in a dialogue with students, sometimes one-on-one but other times, it’s the group. And if it’s a large lecture, it’s a lecture format, so you lay out something, and then the voices come in different ways, and you respond to that. They tell you directly and indirectly where you’ve made a connection and where you haven’t. So there’s that general thing with the students and then there are very specific things —where they come to you with what they don’t understand or with alternative explanations they want to fly by, so they are always teaching you.
If there’s one thing you want your students to learn from you, what would that be?
In the social sciences, the central “lesson” is that our subject is always “moving” and that explanations are not fixed. In the social sciences, we re-ask questions, or — as we discover with the Internet — we gain access to entirely new types of evidence that require us to re-examine prevailing orthodoxies.
Is there a particularly memorable classroom experience you’d like to share?
I think what you most remember are the times when you failed, the times you do not want to repeat. I think those experiences are often the most memorable learning moments for a professor, especially if you teach long enough and have the privilege of teaching here. Because Yale students are both ambitious and smart, they constantly push us to sharpen our own thinking and to make discoveries ourselves. Those of us who teach here are lucky; we are really very lucky.