Joseph “Pepe” Schraibman, a 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award winner, shares his passion for teaching and some of what he’s learned over decades in the classroom.
By Claire Navarro
When Joseph “Pepe” Schraibman arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1950, he didn’t speak a word of English. “I couldn’t say ‘I love chocolates,’ which I do,” he now recalls with a smile. His first summer in New York, the 14-year-old future professor made friends while playing stickball, a game he knew from Havana. “That saved me. They taught me colloquial language – words I can’t use all the time, except with friends," he says, laughing. “For me, English was a process. It gave me humility.”
“For me, English was a process. It gave me humility.”
It wasn’t long before Schraibman began passing his new knowledge on to others. To make some extra money, he became an “itinerant teacher,” traveling between tutoring gigs on the subway. His students came from a wide variety of backgrounds and skill levels, and Schraibman loved the challenge of developing tactics to help every student learn. He was hooked.
As a faculty member at Washington University since 1969, Schraibman has held a number of roles, including chair of Romance Languages and Literatures. But decades after his first tutoring jobs in Brooklyn, he still most values his time in the classroom. “My love is teaching,” he says simply.
When asking Schraibman about his teaching philosophy over the years, one word repeatedly comes up: symbiosis. “It’s the equation between you and the students, and the students and themselves,” he explains. “So in my courses the syllabus that I hand out is of course made up by me, but I change it whenever necessary depending on who's in class. If something doesn't work, I change it. It's not etched in stone just because I made it.”
This kind of symbiosis requires open communication lines and fostering an atmosphere in which students are comfortable speaking their minds. “One challenge is always getting them to open up,” Schraibman says. “Silence is a wonderful thing to have when you’re studying or walking on campus, but not in class. In class it is important to speak up and feel that your voice counts.” Sometimes this level of openness translates into mentorships, or even close friendships. Schraibman once officiated at a graduate student’s wedding.
“Silence is a wonderful thing to have when you’re studying or walking on campus, but not in class. In class it is important to speak up and feel that your voice counts.”
True to the ideal of a symbiotic relationship, Schraibman’s classroom experiences have influenced his own research interests. For example, his many years leading the first-year Focus program on Cuba allowed him to rediscover his own birthplace and new research avenues there. Though his academic specialty is Spanish literature and the Spanish Inquisition, he is currently studying the works of Leonardo Padura, a Cuban novelist.
These days, Schraibman reads the Cuban papers at 5am every morning and prints out interesting articles for class. He takes his students on trips to the library to share his enthusiasm for archives and physical books. (He freely says he’s “in love with” the library, and has donated some 3,000 volumes of his own book collection.) And, as noted in one of his several nomination letters for the 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award, he comes in early for every class to chat in Spanish, and makes himself available to students during Saturday office hours. For him, however, these kinds of details don’t make excellent teachers – what’s needed is a passion for the job.
“Be passionate about what you do. And care for the students,” he says as advice to other teachers on campus. “You will end up learning from them, as well. That's what I said about symbiosis. So it's not about you, or me, it's about your material and your passion. And I've met many, many people here, many in my own department who are that way. It's a delight to work with them.”
As for his recent teaching award, Schraibman says, “I'm honored to have it. But, you know, it hasn't made my head bigger. I know many colleagues who would deserve the same honor. I quote a Spanish saying - I still have proverbs because in Spain and Latin America we have proverbs - and I subscribe to this one: 'Entre todos lo sabemos todo. Among all of us, we know everything.'"