K. Westhues Homepage

Student course evaluations, 1999-2010

Ratings on ratemyprofessors, 2001-2011

ratemyprofessors, article, 2004

Teachers leave a legacy,
article, 2003

Kierkegaardian professor,
paper, 1985

Rootless by degrees,
lecture, 1985

Mary Parker Follett on the teacher-student relation,
article, 1928




Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, 2013.

I taught full-time in universities for 42 years, from 1969 to 2011. The question box pictured above is as good a symbol as any of the philosophy of teaching I gradually came to over that period, and tried to be faithful to in my classes.

I designed and built the box in about 2000, and thereafter carried it to all my lectures, unless the class was very small. Since juggling the box along with books and notes and papers on the trek to class was a bit of a bother, it served first of all to remind me that always, students' questions are more important than my answers. Their questions are the inescapable starting point of learning. It is the teacher's job to respond to those questions and awaken new ones. Otherwise, the teacher fails, no matter how polished, well-prepared, and well-delivered lectures may be.

At the beginning of each course, I explained to the students that the question box was intended to give them the same reminder it gave me, that if they were going to learn anything, they would have to put themselves in the driver's seat. They would not be allowed to swallow whole anything I might say, nor simply regurgitate it on tests. They would have to be mulling over constantly and critically my words, my blackboard scribbles, my overheads and slides, in light of whatever questions mattered most to them. Otherwise, their course credit at the end would be counterfeit.

The box served a practical purpose, in that students could put anonymous written questions in it at the end of class. I would then respond at the start of the next class. More often, students raised their questions orally during class or in conversation afterwards. The box was mainly symbolic, something for students and me to notice and take a lesson from during class. That was why, as I told them, I put some effort into its design and construction. I turned the spindles from the wood of a Chinese Scholar Tree (Sophora japonica) that grew in front of our home, an ancient arboreal representation of what a university is supposed to be about.

On account of my fondness for trees, I carried a small branch of birch home as a souvenir from a trip to Finland in 2002. By then I was worried that students had become so accustomed to my first question box that it was no longer quickening their minds as it should. I therefore turned the Finnish birch into a second question box (pictured below), and thereafter alternated the two boxes in my classes, joked about them from time to time. I do not know to what extent they served their intended purpose. I think they did more good than harm.

When I retired from full-time teaching in December of 2010, I thought of passing on one or another of the question boxes to some younger colleague. I wasn't sure any professor I could think of would appreciate the gift. Professors vary in their pedagogies. I wouldn't want to foist mine on anybody else. Over time, I believe, less dialogic philosophies of education have gained currency, in tandem with machine-readable multiple-choice tests.


It was a proud moment in 2005, when the UW Faculty of Arts Student Union created a new award, Professor of the Year, and presented it to me at the Graduation Ball. The student leaders pictured with me are Neha Chugh, who went on to become a criminal defense lawyer in Ottawa, and Howie Bender, who was appointed in 2013, Chief of Staff in the Ontario Ministry of Education, Toronto.