Cuban-Born Professor Wins Top Honor for Being Class Act to Students : Education: The Brooklyn, N.Y., mentor uses dramatic techniques to inspire his classes with the value of learning.
Carpe diem. Seize the day. The Horatian ode drifts through the classroom of Prof. Teofilo Ruiz to remind all that life is short, fame is fleeting. We could all die tomorrow.
Now the Carnegie Foundation has recognized both his scholarship and his success as a teacher by naming Ruiz one of its four U.S. Professors of the Year from a list of 500 submitted by colleges and universities across the nation.
That’s even more remarkable because his school is Brooklyn College, City University of New York, haven for 15,000 city kids. Unlike the academy in the movie “The Dead Poets Society,” it has no bucolic setting.
It is an island in a maze of traffic-clogged streets where security is a prime concern. The students, mostly blue-collar, mostly Italian, Jewish, Asian and West Indian, go home at night.
Ruiz can relate to them. He is a Cuban exile who worked his way through college in the United States in a factory and driving a cab.
His students are anything but the disciplined, well dressed young men of the Dead Poets academy, but there is something of Robin Williams in Ruiz as he strides about the classroom, admonishing, cajoling, challenging.
There is no dress code here, just baseball caps worn every which way, blue jeans, sweat shirts, sneakers, a few girls in dresses, some all-weather jackets still zippered against the wintry air outside.
Most of Ruiz’s class of 50 arrive early to the smallish lecture room with its too-often-painted, cream-color walls and its smudged blackboard at one end.
For most of them, these daily excursions into academe are the only intellectual light in their lives.
“I think I have a very good eye for people who have talent and ability,” Ruiz says. “And we have students like that at Brooklyn who are incredibly gifted but who do not know they are gifted. They say, ‘I do very well here because I’m at Brooklyn, but would I do as well at Princeton or Michigan?’ ”
“And my answer to that is, you would do better. Everything would be working well. It makes you better.”
Why does Ruiz try to persuade some students to venture to the big universities, the big intimidating environment out there?
“I encourage them to get out of Brooklyn,” says Ruiz, who got his bachelor’s degree at City College, a master’s at New York University and a doctorate at Princeton. “I don’t mean there is anything wrong with the city, but they must get out of the commuter school. The problem is, there will never be any intellectual or emotional challenge at home.”
In the summer, Ruiz teaches a six-credit-hour course, and once a week he takes his class into Manhattan for lunch and to visit museums and Shakespeare in the Park. “It is a class on Utopia in Western history from Plato to ‘Brave New World.’ ”
He points out to his students that “there are better places, and the better the place, the more support they are going to get financially and the better the possibilities of getting a job.”
Ruiz came to this school with the benefit of having had good teachers and finely honed abilities to learn. His scholastic forte was in Castile, Cuba, where his family still has roots. His father, an attorney (“he could have been a philosophy professor better than a lawyer”), established his young family outside Havana, across the way from the Ernest Hemingway farm where young Teo played and swam in the pool.
Although Teo was from a middle-class family and went to a private school, he supported the revolutionary movement to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. At age 17 he got a job helping produce anti-Batista propaganda. But when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he felt betrayed. “A group of us resigned from the movement. But, of course, you can’t resign.”
Shortly before the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles supported by the CIA, there was a sabotage scare, and Ruiz was thrown into prison for a while. In the confusion that swept the island, he was released and came to the United States. He made his way from Miami to New York, working at Continental Can Co. and driving a taxi to pay for his education.
Now, as an educator himself, he has established his own style.
He dubbed one course on counterculture in the Middle Ages through the early modern period “Mystics, Alchemists and Witches.” On the first day of class he came into the darkened lecture hall wearing a long robe and delivering incantations by candle light.
It certainly got their attention.
Ruiz does it to break the ice in introductory classes where no one knows him.
“The first thing I might do is write on the board Professor Steven Demowitz, because I have no idea who Steven Demowitz is or anyone else.”
Or he might say this is the world of James Joyce. Or the world of Cervantes, and begin lecturing in Spanish or French. And half the class gets up and leaves and he has to go into the hall and yell for them to come back. And when they do, he says: “First lesson, don’t believe everything you hear.”
Even in the serious side of the class, as he patrols the crowded aisles, he lets no otherwise accepted fact go by. There is no conventional wisdom here. No politically correct statement will go unchallenged.
In one class on witches (a tool to introduce students to the comparative notions of good and evil as a social evolution), he becomes the devil’s advocate against contrary points of view. It keeps the students participating in his ambling, good-humored style.
From the first day, Ruiz is on a first-name basis with everyone. There is no title of professor doctor allowed. He is Teo.
“I am 51 years old, my knees hurt, I am extremely confused, so don’t come to me for answers,” he says. “I think that teaching is a subversive activity. We have a responsibility to cover a topic and material, but I am more interested in the questioning of values, of questioning accepted truths, whatever they are.”
He says he was telling his students carpe diem, seize the moment and seize the day, 10 years before the “The Dead Poets’ Society” movie came out.
He tells them, “Look, you are never going to be 18 or 19 again, you’re never going to be 21 again. When you are 51, your knees are going to hurt. So live life intensely. If you are going to do it, do it completely.”
On grades, every student has his own personal learning curve.
“Mostly it’s because a large number of our students are going absolutely nowhere,” he says. “For them, it’s not a competitive world where a grade here and there will make a difference in going to a great and wonderful graduate school or law school. But they will know in one or two classes they did well for their abilities and they were rewarded.”
Some of his students protest that someone was rewarded with an “A” when their work was not comparable with another “A.” He answers by saying it is because that person did the best he or she could do. They had to work for it, he says.