When I first came to Gustavus I already had extensive teaching experience and as is the case with experience, especially in the profession of teaching, it is all useful. But I would say that since coming to Gustavus I have made fundamental changes in my teaching philosophy that have had a profound effect on all my interactions with students. If I had to boil these changes down to their essence, it would be that my teaching has become much more student-centered. This is not to say that the subject matter of my discipline is not important in my classes. In fact, I probably “cover” more material in my classes than ever before. Rather, I have come to realize that the most lasting and significant learning, in quantity and quality, happens when the students discover an inner motivation to do the work of the class.
I have found that I can best help students develop this inner motivation in a number of ways. First, my own enthusiasm and attitude towards the subject matter are crucial. I have come to see that students very much respond to the tone I set in class. Difficult material is best approached with an understanding of its complexity, but more importantly with confidence that the students can master it. My belief in their potential is a powerful catalyst. I also think it is important to model for them the joy I feel when I am learning. I burst with questions when I read ancient literature; I love fitting together the clues in Pompeian graffiti until I see some pattern emerge that no one has ever seen before. Students should be inspired to see the excitement that is inherent in true learning; and hopefully they will come to understand that this can be a deep and long lasting source of happiness for their entire lives.
Second, although students sometimes say they would prefer an “easy” class or an “easy” major, most of them understand that anything of value requires a great deal of effort. And ultimately they will only commit themselves meaningfully to work of real value. As a result, standards must be high, and students of all levels should feel challenged.
Third, while I incorporate many different types of assignment into a class, I believe discussion and writing are most central to their intellectual growth; for it is in these activities that the students wrestle with ideas most directly. Discussion reveals to them the dynamic nature of the creation of ideas, where their own thoughts on a topic affect the understanding of the group and vice versa. They see that learning is a collaborative venture and begin to appreciate that there is often a wider wisdom to be found in the group. It is also here where they discover the excitement of seeing ideas develop and change in ways they had not envisioned beforehand. Alhough I have come to value discussion much more in my classroom, in many ways writing still stands at the core of the intellectual experience in my courses. In writing they experience learning as a more solitary and reflective activity, with many sometimes difficult stops and starts as they read and reread, think through questions, sort through evidence, and slowly transform ideas from the head to the page. There is joy here too, in the little flashes of insight that accompany the process and especially at the end when they realize they have created something that did not exist before.
Fourth, it is absolutely crucial that the students rediscover their own true curiosity. I often feel that this is probably my greatest challenge as a teacher, but it is not an intractable one. Education at any levels requires some measure of simply “knowing the material”, but too often this has become the dominant paradigm. They envision the central task as a transfer of knowledge from my head (or the textbook) to theirs. Yet this alone is not exciting enough for them to retain many of the “facts” they might acquire in the course nor does it lead to much intellectual growth. If, however, they develop the instinct to ask questions that they really want answered, suddenly the dynamic has changed; now they are driven from the inside to “know the material” and go far beyond that. It also makes the course relevant to them in ways that I might not have thought of. This ultimately leads to life-long learning and it makes teaching much more exciting for me. My courses are no longer circumscribed bodies of knowledge, but rather my teaching ideally establishes a foundation upon which students build and discover things that I had not planned.
Finally, I have come to realize that sometimes “less is more.” In other words, there are times in the semester-long span of a course where I do not need to squeeze out every last drop of learning in the way I had planned; it can be preferable to allow a day that had been organized with a particular goal in mind to go its own route. The benefit is always considerable in terms of energy level that arises from the spontaneity and discussions that range far and wide, but which show a deep engagement with the ancient material and its modern significance.
To illustrate how I have put the teaching philosophy described above into practice I would like to discuss in depth a few representative courses, as well as provide student comments to show their reaction to my teaching.
CUR 100 (Historical Perspective I), the first course in the curriculum 2 sequence, has had probably a greater impact on the way I teach than any other course – in some ways it is most responsible for my development as a teacher, but it also shows the subsequent effects of my change. Historical Perspective I is an intensive introduction to the liberal arts and the life of the mind through a survey of western history from ancient Mesopotamia up to the Renaissance (with a strong focus on the Greeks). I inherited a great course, but while teaching it now on four occasions, each time with a different colleague, I have taken the lead in making changes that have further strengthened the course. There has always been a lot of challenging reading (2000+ pages as 2 students lamented in our end of term review revue in 2005), but I have added more – for example selections from the history of Herodotus – that have brought out even more the historical emphasis of the course. I have also rewritten many of the daily reflection questions to emphasize central, philosophical questions about history – for example, concerning the relation of “reality” to historiography – which has given the course greater continuity. I have done the same with the two essays that are assigned in the course, and I have streamlined the research paper to emphasize their observations and analysis of primary sources for the topic which they have chosen. In order to focus their efforts (and calm those overwhelmed by the amount of material) I have selected key terms, events, and people from the textbook for which they need to be prepared in the midterms and final exam. Towards the end of the semester I have incorporated many more creative assignments – for example, after reading some letters of Marsilio Ficino whose work was inspired by ancient literature I ask them to create something in response. They enjoy this immensely, especially the invitation to imitate the Renaissance intellectuals in creating something for their own age by taking off from an ancient idea. I also put in place an end of term session (known as the “review revue”) so they can blow off steam and prepare for the exam by retelling the history that they have learned in the course through skits and songs.
The things I have increasingly emphasized in the course grow out of the student-centered approach discussed earlier. First, I make them aware from the beginning that this is their course and their learning from each other in discussion is central to the experience. I did not always do this. I was naïve my first year in thinking they would talk about the reading just for the sheer pleasure of the ideas. So the next year I announced to them on the second day that I would sit outside the circle and only listen to their discussion of Gilgamesh. There was stunned silence, and for the next 50 minutes the conversation went in fits and starts, but every year I have been amazed at how this beginning sets the tone for their participation throughout the semester. I do not abdicate my responsibility to lead the group on many days, but I do work hard to vary my approach in getting them to talk: small group work is the best – everything from simply having them pair up to read each others’ response paper and then discuss, to “historical haiku” (what’s the gist of the reading in 17 syllables?) – but I also have them debate, and make prepared presentations. Second, I make clear to them that for me, and for their grade, the writing stands at the intellectual core of the course. In my first year I did not often collect the daily response papers. This was a huge mistake and since then I have collected them regularly and commented on them. All the formal papers go through 2 drafts, between which I guide them through considerable rereading and rewriting. This year in fact I am trying something new to see if I can get the students to attend to my comments more carefully: instead of writing extensively on each paper, I will grade them more quickly in shorthand and have meetings with each student where they will take notes from our discussion on the things they need to do differently on the second draft. I am hoping that I can communicate much more and more effectively in person rather than giving them advice that they may not understand in my poor handwriting. Just the opportunity to evaluate whether they have understood the reading, which often is the problem of the paper, may make this worthwhile. And I use the research paper, which is on a topic of their choice, to emphasize the importance of becoming almost compulsively inquisitive, asking questions at every turn. In combination with this I stress that I am most interested in their assessment of the primary sources to answer such questions. The time will come at a later point when they can consider what modern scholars have said on their topic, but for now they need to think through the topic on their own. This gives them a wonderful sense of freedom and opportunity – no longer are they just gathering the expert opinion of others, but many of them suddenly feel like they have a part to play in the creation of knowledge. Finally, throughout the course I try to support them as well as challenge them and in everything I do I model my own joy of learning.
Introductory Latin has always been one of my favorite courses to teach. Even though it includes very little writing or discussion in the traditional sense, it still stands as a good example of my overall educational philosophy. The opportunities for learning are so varied that I sometimes describe it as cross training for the mind. The history of Latin and the grammar they give me many jumping off points to introduce various aspects of linguistics. Latin vocabulary provides the key to understanding a vast new storehouse of English words and I regularly incorporate this sort of expansion of their English vocabulary into the course. The fact that our textbook focuses on the youthful Horace provides a rationale for bringing his poems, translated, into class for discussion. In the first year that I taught Latin, as the country was gearing up for the Iraq war, we read Horace’s Cleopatra Ode which is a sympathetic portrayal of her suicide at a time when she was Rome’s sworn enemy and Horace himself wrote with the full support of the Roman leader Augustus. Similar discussions concerning Roman history and culture are possible at an infinite number of points throughout the course. For example, I have made a wax tablet and shown the students how difficult it is to write with a stylus – there is a reason the Romans preferred very linear scripts! I have also given them a sample of the things that Pompeians liked to scrawl on their walls and taught them how to read graffiti, even when it is full of mistakes that even a 2nd semester Latin student would not make!
Yet the primary focus must remain on the language. Because most Gustavus students have had no experience with Latin in high school, almost all our majors go through the beginning Latin or Greek sequence and therefore it is paramount that they establish a solid foundation in the language. I have found that soft pedaling the difficulties of the language does no one any favors, especially if they continue on and read real Latin in later years. Typically I require a lot of memorization of grammar and vocabulary, and my tests always consist of long portions of freshly created Latin stories by me so that they truly must demonstrate that they are mastering the ability to read (rather than memorizing the stories in the book). I am not, however, averse to the sort of fun that language classes are quite good at. Eric Dugdale and I began having our introductory students write Latin haiku, a poetic form that actually works quite well with the compact nature of the language. And I have been known to lead my class in a rousing version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” (the Latin – caput, umeri, genua, digiti – is actually quiet catchy), construct Latin crosswords, dramatize the daily reading, and play Latin boggle. Even with this delicate balancing act of teaching the language responsibly, introducing the Romans, and keeping a difficult subject spontaneous and fun, I feel I have been very successful at giving the general Gustavus audience a worthwhile and interesting language experience at the same time as preparing our majors well. The numbers in Latin during my time here have generally been healthy and growing.
The last class I would like to discuss is Greek 304, which is a new course on the Greek orators that we recently put into the curriculum. In order to demonstrate my teaching philosophy in detail I wanted to look at just a few courses more closely; but in order to give you confidence that these were not aberrations, that in fact the student-centered approach has taken hold deeply with me, I chose three very different classes in terms of subject matter, assignments, and focus on either general education or the major. At first glance any upper level Greek course would seem to lend itself to a specialized, almost pre-professional sort of teaching. They are typically small, taken by very good students who are intending to go on to graduate school, and full of esoteric material. If I ever wanted to teach in a graduate-seminar style, Greek 304 was my chance. But what happened, in retrospect, surprised me and showed me how much I have changed. At the same time as I was covering the material in a way that resembled some of my own graduate courses – large quantities of reading, a definite focus on the language, the reading of scholarly articles and commentaries – I really approached the course in the spirit of CUR 100 – in the spirit of a general education course. I kept big questions at the forefront and was constantly thinking about what I wanted them to take away from this reading in case they never came this way again – my highest aim was to have them discover a joy and inner motivation to know more about this stuff. The result was, in my estimation, the best upper level language class I have ever taught – and this was a set of authors and genre that lies as far outside my area of expertise as any I have been asked to teach.
One of the most important things I did was to push all the Greek reading to Mondays and Fridays. This made for very long assignments in the original language on those days, but I made clear to them that we were not going to translate every word. They were responsible for it all so I expected them to come with passages where they had questions or particular topics of interest that they wanted to discuss. This inspired them to take more ownership of the class, both in terms of declaring where they had had difficulties but also in finding things that truly interested them. Then I reserved Wednesdays for the discussion of English articles and other activities. This had the effect of forcing us to take a break from the minutiae of the language and consider larger questions on a recurring basis. We were regularly talking about big issues concerning both rhetoric and law on those days and the discussion ranged from the ancient world to the modern and back again. There was even one Wednesday where we met down at the Nicollet county courthouse to watch legal proceedings in order to have a better sense of both the physical space but also the rhetoric of a modern trial. As the course went on I became more and more infected by a sprit of trying new things and one Friday we met down at Patrick’s bar to do our reading. To my surprise not only did they stay on task for the assigned time, but we all sat and talked about Greek orators for a second hour! One week I had them write their own short speeches (in English), complete with the sorts of rhetorical moves that were common in ancient legal oratory, and they delivered them to the class. I think that the effect of all this “fun” was that it made them more tolerant of the large amount of Greek I was insisting they read and even the 4 hour midterm and final exam.
I am also very proud of an assignment in which I had them contribute to a joint analysis on a speech of Lysias that does not currently have a scholarly commentary. It is one of the best assignments that I have ever set up for a class. I asked them to write up at least one page per week and it could be anything from the summary of an article or book chapter that somehow was relevant, to their own original analysis of some problem or question in the speech. They really took this idea and ran with it. For the first time in my teaching career I had students regularly reading scholarly articles that I had not assigned and coming into class wanting to share what they had found. An unusual feeling of responsibility and interest to educate each other took hold. They also began developing ideas from week to week. Instead of writing little one page papers on different topics each week which might have seemed an easier way to fulfill the assignment, they chose to go deeper and deeper modifying earlier ideas and discovering the complexity of almost anything they worked on. Not only was this more pleasurable to read than any other student work I have ever assigned, it also showed, especially in their choosing to explore an idea in greater depth, an unusual development of intellectual maturity which we hope for towards the end of a student’s experience in college. And I felt that I had finally gotten it right – it came about because I had put the right sort of structure in place, but then I was smart enough (or lucky enough) to get out of their way and let them find their own path.
Finally, I would like to mention that I regularly advise a large number of students, especially when I am teaching the 2 sections of Curriculum 2. In fact, the advising of the first year students is my favorite because it is the time when they most need to think about the big questions that will change their life – what their talents and passions currently are, what they interested in but perhaps afraid to try, whether they are constructing their future from their own vision or someone else’s, and how they can make a difference in the world. I feel that in my first few years I was just passable as an advisor, making sure their questions about the mechanics of college (credits, majors, etc.) were answered, but not going much beyond that. Recently I had done a better job getting them to think of the bigger questions described above. And just this past year I have taken much more time with each one individually to ask about the emotional side of their beginning college – leaving their families and friends, making new friends, living with a roommate, etc. It is all important because it all affects their educational experience.