For Laura Ymayo Tartakoff, adjunct associate professor of political science, the secret to good teaching consists of little more than following the golden rule.
"I put myself in the place of my students, because I can still remember when I was in their place," she explains. "I also have children in college, and I think of how I would like their professors to treat them. I tell my students I have to sleep with my conscience, and I like to sleep well every night."
In practice, her philosophy means courses that are rigorous and demanding of preparation, and a formal classroom atmosphere where students are addressed as "Mr." and "Miss." But it also means a genuine concern for the well-being and intellectual growth of her students.
It is an approach that is popular with those who take her courses. Tartakoff, a member of the political science department since 1994, has been voted a winner of the 2006 Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. It is the fifth time she has been nominated for the award, and her fifth teaching award overall. Courses Tartakoff teaches include Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Dictatorship and Democracy in 20th Century Latin America, and Comparative Constitutions.
Tartakoff believes that definition of terms and clarification of goals are crucial to the educational process. "In my classes I do not accept opinions that are not supported by definitions of the terms being used, or at least one example to back the student's perspective. This allows for classes to have substantive discussions."
In that spirit, Tartakoff begins each semester's class by defining what she means by education: To transcend the "givens" of life. "No one chooses one's family, birthplace, or gender," she explains. "And I believe a true education leads to transcending those givens."
To help students transcend their "givens," Tartakoff encourages reading (or listening to) those with whom they disagree. For example, if inclined to vote for Republicans, they should read the editorial pages of The New York Times; when inclined to favor Democrats, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. "Since I teach, I read both," she says.
In addition, she recommends reading poetry and fiction. "Reading poetry and great literature forces us to have second thoughts and helps us free ourselves, as W.H. Auden puts it, from 'the fetters of self' — in other words, from everything being me, me, me," Tartakoff says.
Tartakoff finds inspiration in mentors she has had throughout her life, starting with several of the teachers and nuns who taught her as a child in Puerto Rico, where she lived after her family fled their native Cuba in the early 1960s. "I have a great debt of gratitude to them for being present and giving of themselves," she says. "They were my first examples of what it meant to be a teacher."
Later on she was influenced by professors who taught her at Georgetown University, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at the Institute of Advanced International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the Case School of Law, from which she graduated magna cum laude. One of her professors at the law school, Jonathan Entin, also became a source of inspiration. "He was not hesitant to express himself, and he was always willing to hear others' opinions as long as they were respectful," she recalls. Entin later recommended her for the position in the political science department.
Tartakoff's ties to her students do not end when they leave her classes—or even when they graduate from Case. Her desk is cluttered with wedding invitations and photographs, birth announcements, and pictures of newborns sent by former students. "It's gratifying to know I have had an impact on their lives," she says. "I find it hard not to do what I'm doing."
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