Education Is a Two-Way Street

Instructor Jane Staw shares the benefits of a "second chance" to learn

Not everyone is cut out to fully commit to higher education at 18 years old. Or at 22. Or even at 54. But what UC Berkeley Extension Honored Instructor Jane Anne Staw finds great about her experience teaching is that age does not matter.

When a student is ready to learn and give back to the community with that newfound knowledge, then that is the right time to pursue an education.

Jane Staw is a UC Berkeley Extension Honored Instructor

Staw was one of those disengaged students who went to college and then to postgraduate school because it was expected. “After earning a B.A. and Ph.D. in French language and literature—and even after teaching French to undergraduates for several years—in my mid-30s I went back to school to study for an M.F.A. in writing,” Staw remembers.

While successful in her undergraduate and postgraduate work, Staw was, well, going through the motions. “But in the end,” she confesses, “I expended most of my energy, in most of my courses, worrying about writing papers and taking exams—which meant I studied with my final grades in mind, not giving very much space to my intellect.”

Once Staw gave herself the freedom to explore what interested her, she discovered that she was intrinsically motivated to learn. Now, as an Extension writing instructor, Staw brings that mindset to her teaching. She believes that the individual student’s motivation is what drives them to take Extension courses, and that good instructors cannot help but sense that motivation and feed students’ intellect to meet their needs. By working together toward the common goal, students and instructors form a community—one where there are no one-way streets. Staw finds that in teaching at Extension, “I am never the only teacher.”

And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

"Teaching at Extension as a Two-Way Street

In December 2016, Jane Anne Staw gave the keynote at UC Berkeley Extension’s Honored Instructors reception. Listen to her inspiring words, meant not only for those who teach courses in continuing education but also for those who sometimes think that going “back to school” is not for them.

My first thoughts when I was asked to speak about teaching at UC Berkeley Extension were to spend time discussing the importance of giving people a second, a third—even a fourth—chance at learning about a subject important to them, either personally or professionally. I also thought about the independence afforded to Extension instructors in conceiving and teaching their courses. I thought about phoning colleagues who teach at Extension to discuss their experiences with them. But before I got much further, I realized that anything I had to say on those topics wouldn’t really capture my own experience of teaching through UC Extension for so many years.

So, for a while I was stymied. What in the world could I talk about that might be original and worthwhile? And then, one night while I was lying in bed wondering when I was ever going to fall asleep, I had a flash: At one time, I was one of those postgraduate students returning to school. After earning a B.A. and Ph.D. in French language and literature—and even after teaching French to undergraduates for several years—in my mid-30s, I went back to school to study for an M.F.A. in writing.

And what was so thrilling for me was that while I had been a diligent and dutiful undergraduate, my experience as a postgraduate was nothing like that. When I was an undergraduate, I was worried more about—I'm embarrassed to say—my grades and the impression I made on my professors than on where my intellectual passions lay. Outside of my major, I’m sad to say, I approached most of my courses as necessary hurdles to scramble over on the road to graduation. Sure, I found my two history of religions courses intriguing. I loved analyzing my family’s place within American society for my sociology course on the history of class in the U.S. And throughout my four years as an undergraduate, I loved speaking, hearing and reading French.

But in the end, I confess: I expended most of my energy, in most of my courses, worrying about writing papers and taking exams—which meant I studied with my final grades in mind, not giving very much space to my intellect.

True, I continued in school, going on to receive my doctorate in French. But again, although I was certainly interested in the courses I took, I hadn’t yet discovered the pure intellectual joy of exploring the material for which I was responsible. To be quite honest, and I guess I am being quite honest now, I was studying to receive my doctorate to please my parents. No, let’s make that to please my father.

When I completed my Ph.D., I began teaching French courses at a small liberal arts college. At the time, the college had a reputation for admitting wealthy, spoiled students who didn’t much care for learning. It was also a time when study of languages was at an all-time low, which in the end was a boon for me. Those who took my French language and literature courses were, on the whole, the more serious students at the college. And my classes were small, which meant I didn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time grading papers and exams. I did have to spend hours and hours in my office—as required by the college—available to students every long afternoon. But due to the size of my enrollments and the dedication of most of my students, I found myself alone for most of those long office hours.

Being alone, with the door open to welcome any potential visitors, meant that I was privy to the office hours of my colleague next door, who taught writing—both fiction and poetry. I’ve always been an eavesdropper. And all those hours sitting alone in my office were ideal for eavesdropping on the conversations between my colleague next door and her students. I soon discovered that I was fascinated by the way she talked to her students about writing—from the inside, rather from the armchair’s distance at which I was used to placing myself when I discussed with my students the central metaphors of the poems we read, or the themes in the novels we were studying. Instead, my colleague would ask amazing questions like, “Why do you think this character said that?” “How do you think these two images work? Do they work together or against each other?”

Timidly at first, I began talking to my neighbor about writing. And, as you might surmise, I was lured into a universe previously unknown to me: a universe of intellectual involvement, and eventually, passion.

All the talk with my colleague inspired me to write. I started writing poetry, then applied to study for an M.F.A. And there, at the University of Iowa, is where I journeyed to a whole new world. For the first time, I took courses because I, and I alone, was uniquely interested in what I was reading and writing. No longer was I worried about my grades—they really didn’t matter anymore, nothing depended upon them—not graduate school, not a job. What mattered was the material before me and that which I was creating. I read and wrote for the sheer pleasure of it. For the flights of joy the two pursuits inspired in me. For the way my responses made me feel about myself. I think I can say that I was actually reborn during the two years I studied for my postgraduate M.F.A. For the first time, my intellectual curiosity was set free, and I was able to engage deeply with whatever I studied. This new-found excitement with learning when I returned to school was a strong motivator for me to begin teaching at UC Extension, when I moved to Berkeley in the early 1980s—a long time ago.

I began teaching a nonfiction writing workshop one night a week, in Dwinelle Hall, on the UC Campus, all that many years ago. Since then, I have continued to teach, at times other courses, some for experienced writers, others for those who were hoping to begin writing.

I taught the students in my classes about narrators and point of view, metaphor and tension. I taught them about character development and pacing, about shape and structure. Not all the students were in need of schooling on every one of these topics, but they were always interested in that something new they could learn and integrate into their writing. This meant that as an instructor, I felt the attention of my students on me and my material. I have never felt taken for granted; I always feel appreciated.

Over the years, however, I’ve discovered that teaching postgraduate students is much, much more than I originally sought when I first began teaching Extension classes in nonfiction writing. While my initial motivation was to provide the students I taught with the freedom to pursue subjects and abilities that spoke to them or which they needed to further their careers, I discovered that their motivations to sign up for Extension courses ran much deeper.

The first level of extra depth was created because it was the students themselves who had been motivated to sign up for the class. They weren’t sitting there listening to me because their parents demanded it, because our culture said they would go nowhere without a degree, because they had a requirement to fulfill. The chemistry of signing up for a course out of pure intellectual or professional interest is quite different from that of enrolling for a requirement. It has to do with intrinsic motivation, which is much more powerful than a prod or even a reward from the outside.

And in addition to this first layer of depth, created by what I call intrinsic motivation, was quite often a deeper personal need to reach out and take a course through Extension. Not all, but many of the students I have taught at Extension felt a need—sometimes burning, at other times it was just a slight tickle—to learn about nonfiction writing so they can share with a reader a subject, an era in their life, an experience, or even a particular relationship.

I remember a young woman whose husband had died the year before, and whose grief was still, understandably, so deep and raw, that she sought in an evening class, not solace, but a space and a place where she could write about and into that grief so it might not continue to intrude so piercingly into her life.

I remember a man who had recently retired and moved up from Southern California. He was a psychologist who had dealt with people accused of crimes whose lawyers wanted their clients assessed. This student wanted the stories of those accused of crimes to be told, and he was the one to tell it so that his readers would understand what these people had suffered.

I remember a woman, a stay-at-home mother, who before having children had been a successful buyer in the fashion industry in New York. Her family had recently moved to the Bay Area, and she felt her children needed her after their dislocation from all that had been familiar to them. But she no longer knew who she was and she came to Extension in search of her identity.

I remember a man, a highly successful, impressive business man and philanthropist, who had played a role in eliminating the scourge of small pox from India. It wasn’t his business success he wanted to write about, but the joy of freeing millions of children from a terrible, terrible disease.

I remember a young man so passionate about ecology and what he already saw as threats to our planet, that he could no longer keep himself from haranguing anyone who would listen about the dangers of oil and plastic. He sought out Extension to learn to write as well as he could about the future of our planet.

I remember another woman whose mother was schizophrenic. This woman wanted to tell the story of her childhood to make it her own. So much of her lived experience had revolved around her mother’s escapades.

I also remember a gay man who had become part of a cult from which he had finally after many years, escaped. He wanted to write the story of the cult and his escape, both for himself and for other young people vulnerable to the kind of trap he had fallen into.

Of course, not each enrollee comes with needs this profound. But each and every student I have ever taught at Extension came for a more compelling reason than to simply fulfill a requirement or get a credit for sitting in a course. They came because they had always wanted to write and never had. Now was the time. They came because they had ideas that continued to tickle them and they wanted to communicate those ideas.

None of the students I have taught has ever said they came on a lark. Or a bet. Just to see if they could write. To prove something to a friend or a family member. They all came because they were committed to the course and to writing for the duration of the course.

And because the students at UC Berkeley Extension come from so many backgrounds and periods in their life cycle, they each bring something uniquely personal to the classes that they become part of. For them, the Extension class is not one class among many, all accumulating toward an undergraduate degree. The Extension class is an opportunity to perhaps fulfill a deep need and to explore a subject that interests them personally at the same time.

These students come from all walks of life—newly minted graduates, mid-careerists, postgraduates, retirees. I’ve even taught private eyes, Ph.D. candidates in art history, practicing attorneys, doctors, publicists, massage therapists, ex-priests even, baristas, realtors, yoga instructors, elementary school teachers.

Because of this diversity, to a person, they have insights, experiences, and gifts to share with the other members of the class. What I discovered rather quickly in teaching through Extension was that each class of between 15 and 30 participants developed over the weeks we met into a community made up of so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, of so many different ages. And because they were deeply interested in the subject they had come to study, and their goals were generally personal, they were rarely competitive or stingy. Instead, they were always willing to share with the other students their life experiences, emotions, writing strategies and suggestions—even at times they shared recipes and shopping tips.

Yes, I was the instructor, but what I have discovered by teaching at UC Extension is that my classroom is always a two-way street, traffic moving in both directions. In other words, and perhaps this is what is most important: Within this community I became, and still am part of, through Extension, I am never the only teacher.