The journey of learning is infinite

27 September 2012

Professor Rick Benitez: "One of the most effective things you can do as a teacher is to put yourself in your students' place."
Professor Rick Benitez: "One of the most effective things you can do as a teacher is to put yourself in your students' place."

As you leave Professor Rick Benitez's office, you're faced with a colourful lollypop sign with the word 'infin'. It's an image he wants his students to remember because of the message behind it - the journey of learning is infinite.

As a professor of philosophy, a discipline often focused on words, Benitez is surprisingly interested in images. They feature heavily on his lecture slides and he sprinkles them throughout his conversations. His reasoning is that pictures don't just make it easier for students to remember ideas: the images also encourage them to think more creatively and openly.

"Philosophy is provocative and full of diverse ideas. Freethinking is encouraged," says Benitez, who earlier this week received a 2012 National Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.

"When I was a student, my first class in philosophy blew my mind. I wanted to find out how the philosophers got their ideas," he adds.

"I learned that philosophers would sometimes advertise their views in very provocative ways. They would make dramatic statements like, 'nothing exists'. It was a way of engaging people and drawing them into the argument."

In many ways, Benitez uses images to do the same thing. They engage his students and draw them in. It's an example of Benitez's teaching style and commitment to his students.

"One of the most effective things you can do as a teacher is to put yourself in your students' place. Knowing how they learn is the key to effective teaching. The less bookish learning is, the better it is."

Benitez's approach to teaching is partly guided by Plato's remarks that education isn't about putting sight into blind eyes, it's about turning eyes where they can see. However, Benitez believes this analogy misses an important angle: what a teacher can learn from their students.

"Teachers definitely focus learning, but their view isn't the only one. Since nobody has perfect vision, teaching and learning must happen together.

"I take the time to gather information from my students. I ask them questions: How do you learn? How do you conceive? What motivates you? And I incorporate this information into my seminars. It can be challenging because it means I never teach the same course in exactly the same way.

"I'm always learning from my students. During my classes on Greek philosophical texts, I teach my students about philosophy and they teach me about Greek poetry, history and oratory."

Two teachers at Western Maryland College in the United States inspired Benitez's love of philosophy: Dr Laurence Wu, who taught logic and Chinese philosophy and challenged his students to question, and Dr Bob Hartman, a former Methodist minister who taught history of philosophy through stories.

"I saw Dr Wu as a 'Philosopher of the Question' and Dr Hartman as a 'Philosopher of the Story'. I hope my students see me as a 'Philosopher of the Wonder', someone who still enjoys trying to understand, and who seeks to share that enjoyment with my students.

Benitez was one of seven University of Sydney academics to receive a National Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning in 2012. The citations are awarded annually by the federal government's Office for Learning and Teaching.

He is one of the University's academics who will be sharing their approach to teaching at this year's Sydney Teaching Colloquium on 3 and 4 October. Benitez will be speaking on the importance of 'research-enriched learning and teaching'.

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