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Pieces of Eight


James Seeks to Inspire Lifelong Learning

Following is the teaching philosophy of Dr. J. Frank James, professor of psychiatry at the Brody School of Medicine, and winner of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.


At some point in my career, what I accomplished became less important to me than what I passed on to others, and what they accomplished. It seemed that there was greater joy in seeing a student’s eyes light up as they recognized accurately a schizoaffective disorder in a patient or was the first person to diagnose hypothyroidism when I and other attendings had missed it.

Feedback felt good, but even that seemed less gratifying than knowing I had contributed a small part toward making this person a competent professional.

Dr. J. Frank James
Dr. J. Frank James

Every generation passes on to the next the accumulated knowledge and perspective that had been passed on to them and further modified by their own experience and learning. Teachers have a great duty to be torchbearers of civilization.

In medicine, the pace of this progress is incredible, yet we who teach in this field must be among the ranks of teachers who are truly generative.

We must capture the past and the present, and help shape the future.


Peers have asked my why I volunteer to teach so many classes and take on so much supervision. It is a simple joy that I receive from sharing what I know and what my experiences have been with others.

I may be one of the few medical schoolteachers around who has the privilege to teach at almost every level in the field. What a great privilege to be able to follow the development of students over several years. With many of them strong bonds are made which have lasted for many years.

Former students frequently call to discuss their cases. Again, I feel so fortunate and I hope this satisfaction is perceived by students.


My teaching mission, which seems to have greater clarity every year, has several components to it.

First, to enable students to learn how to recognize emotional problems, cognitive deficits and mental illness in their patients; how to relate to these patients with understanding; and how to actively participate in their treatment.

Second, to free students from the distorted, stigmatized view of mentally disturbed patients that most of them bring into the classroom and on to the wards.

Third, to set examples for future internists, surgeons, family doctors, and psychiatrists in compassion, understanding, and humanity.

Fourth, to pass on the most current technical and research information available so that students will be as effective as they can possibly be in their understanding and treatment.

Fifth, to be so effective in practicing my own specialty in front of students they will carry away with them a greater respect for psychiatry. Hopefully that respect, which comes grudgingly to some, will result in using my specialty more for their needful patients, and perhaps themselves; and do so with confidence and comfort.

Meeting Students Where They Are

A young faculty member…once requested of me that I send him only “good” students and residents. When questioned, he told me a “good” student was curious, bright, enthusiastic, and already knew enough to help out.

After mulling this over I responded that a “good” teacher meets students where they are no matter how deficient they are in his criteria.

A good teacher provokes curiosity and enthusiasm and gives them the knowledge to be bright and helpful.

This incident, a few years ago, actually made me a much better teacher. I have become more receptive and tolerant, and more determined to meet students where they are and raise them up to where they need to be.

It made me think about and relinquish my own arrogance which once caused me to believe that my job was done when I laid out the factual information and they got it or not. That position is where a good teacher begins, not ends.

The Battle

The technology of medicine and the growing overwhelming emphasis on the business side of medicine are dark forces.

Physicians, once revered, are beginning to be perceived by more and more people as technicians, pharmacologists and purveyors. They see less humanity in the practice of medicine.

I believe that those of us who teach have a Hippocratic duty to care about our patients as individual unique human beings. We must teach technical and formal skills, but we must also maintain and convey concern and compassion – “caritas medici.”


In giving, and preparing applications for National Board Examinations in Psychiatry, I have become aware that retention of material from formal training is not great even from the supposed best schools.

Those who do well, even on the older material, are those who have continued to learn and study and keep up to date. They seem to be inspired to learn.

Perhaps our greatest effort in teaching may not be to impart knowledge or teach techniques. Certainly these are important, but to stimulate curiosity, to challenge students to learn more than we know may be our best teaching. We may want to leave them feeling that they don’t quite know enough.

In summary my philosophy of teaching is simple; to be generative by enabling accomplishment, to convey my appreciation for the privilege to teach, to provide the best factual and cognitive information, to open up students to the emotional and personal sides of human beings, and to inspire students to remain students throughout their careers.

This then is my teaching creed.


This page originally appeared in the Oct. 14, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at