Returning to origins
"I loved being a student; I was born for the classroom," says Assistant Professor of Classics Carolin Hahnemann. "But the problem is that when you love being a student, you go to college and then to graduate school and ultimately you become a teacher. You're still in the classroom, but it's the other side."
The other side, of course, has its advantages: the life of the mind, an immersion in books and ideas and gifted colleagues and pedagogical challenges and summers devoted to research and travel. But of all the rewards offered by a career in academe, it turns out that one of the sweetest is the chance to savor again the experience that led to the academy in the first place: the intellectual luxury of being a student.
As devoted as they are to teaching--and as busy as they are with advising, committee work, departmental obligations, and their own research--Hahnemann and a number of her faculty colleagues occasionally make time to become undergraduate students again. They take Kenyon courses from their Kenyon colleagues, attending class, doing the reading and the homework, and sometimes even taking the tests.
They do it for practical and personal reasons. But they discover that the value of the experience goes beyond individual enrichment. It provides insights into teaching and a more sensitive understanding of students. It widens their sense of possibilities. It fosters their appreciation for other disciplines and perspectives, and for their colleagues--and thus it helps to foster community. It also places them, much more directly than their professional duties can, at the heart of the liberal-arts enterprise, where the specialized and the general, the academic and the personal, the arts and humanities and sciences, come together.
Faculty members regularly observe one another's classes as part of periodic evaluations. Team-teaching also enables professors to learn from one another. But taking a class, as a student, is a different experience, with a different kind of commitment and often greater revelations. Even when the motive is purely practical, the results exceed expectations.
In 1992-93, for example, Associate Professor of Music Camilla Cai took two semesters of German literature with Associate Professor of German Evelyn Moore, in order to prepare for a summer of research in Germany. "I'd taken some German in college and had spent my junior year in Austria, but I hadn't used the language in twenty-five years," says Cai. "I needed to speak at least adequately--I'd be dealing with German librarians and I didn't want to make a fool of myself."
Aiming for language proficiency, Cai found herself won over by the beauties and complexities of literature. "I read literature I had heard about all my life but had never had time to read. Also, I learned to analyze literature. As an undergraduate in a music conservatory, I never did that. I had always read poetry as a text for music. Now I saw the poem standing alone. I could see a line of Goethe as beautiful, whereas before I would have simply translated it."
Deeper literary understanding has helped Cai analyze musical works that incorporate text, since linguistic subtleties can influence the way a composer shapes a phrase or ornaments a musical line. The courses also served the original purpose of reviving Cai's German: "I really was amazed at how fluent I was; I couldn't believe I had learned that much."
But she stresses that the most joyful part of the experience was discovering something new. "I was going into a world that I never had an opportunity to enter. It was incredibly exciting. I adored studying literature."
Professors invariably learn more about teaching when they sit in on a class.
When Professor of Classics Robert E. Bennett took African-American literature from Theodore O. Mason Jr., the John B. McCoy-Bank One Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, he noticed the effectiveness of Mason's short-paper assignments and of his feedback to students.
When Associate Professor of Psychology Andrew J. Niemiec took electronics from Professor of Physics Thomas B. Greenslade Jr., he was struck by the way Greenslade thoroughly integrated the laboratory component of the course with his lectures.
When Professor of Biology Joan L. Slonczewski took a second-year class from Professor of Spanish Linda Metzler, she was impressed by Metzler's ability to instill confidence in students and by the way she used her travel experiences in Central and South America to enrich the course.
When Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Donald L. Rogan studied Islam with Associate Professor of Religious Studies Vernon J. Schubel, he noticed that Schubel was scrupulous about finding the answers to difficult or arcane questions that students raised.
When Associate Professor of French Mary Jane Cowles took beginning Greek with Professor Emeritus of Classics William E. McCulloh before he retired, she was impressed by his patience and enthusiasm, by the way he gave students time to think, and by his use of a "quote of the week" to build morale while imparting both grammatical lessons and insights into Greek culture.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Carol S. Schumacher has been taking Economics 101 this fall, in part because "we have a lot of math majors who double-major in economics, and I wanted to speak their language a little. Also, we can use economic concepts in teaching calculus. And there's a lot of really cool mathematics in economics."
After about two weeks of classes, Schumacher noticed that her instructor, Associate Professor of Economics William R. Melick, began lecturing less and leading the students into more discussions. "The change in approach fit the material," she says, "but it was also a deliberate effort to get through to students who learned in a different way."
Such shifts in technique and pacing are part of what makes teaching an art, according to Associate Professor of English Jennifer S. Clarvoe. Clarvoe came to admire the pedagogical artistry of Luce Professor of Art and Politics Lewis Hyde when she took his Thoreau seminar in 1997.
|Jennifer Clarvoe and Lewis Hyde|
"He manages to make the students real collaborators in the course. He's simultaneously very low-key and very demanding, in a way that encourages the students to be engaged and serious, so that their comments really contribute to the discussion. I was also impressed by the rhythms he set up in the seminar--when he got the students going, when he came in with a mini-lecture, when he stopped to pull things together. It's a model of teaching to work toward."
Sometimes participating in another professor's class can profoundly alter one's perspective. Last year, when she was undergoing an evaluation, Hahnemann decided to observe a number of other teachers. As a Greek scholar, she thought she might find parallels in classical Chinese, taught by John "Jack" Finefrock, the Kenyon Bookstore manager and an adjunct instructor of Asian studies, and she visited Finefrock's beginning class. "I went in and thought `God!' and just stayed"not because Chinese was similar to Greek but because it was so different.
Steeped in the dense grammatical structures of Greek, Hahnemann was intrigued by the grammatical spareness of Chinese poetry, the way it forces readers to fashion their own bridges from one character to another. "I had no idea there was a language like this," she says. "I enjoyed building these paths."
Equally striking was the extent to which Finefrock encouraged students to bring their personal concerns to the poetry. "The class took place in the zone between the poem and our lives," says Hahnemann. "In Chinese poetry family relationships are important. Jack managed to talk about things of profound impact, but they came in a poem, so there was enough distance. The poem was a framework through which you could examine where you are."
Until then, Hahnemann had been wary of allowing students' personal lives to enter into coursework. But when she taught Greek tragedy during the spring semester, she found that an explicit connection to personal experience could help some students grasp the emotion provoked by a play. "Sometimes there were brutal family issues," she says. "For instance, I realized that it was immensely important for some people to come to terms with Medea [in Euripides's Medea] because they saw their stepmother in Medea. The play enabled them to grapple with this."
|Will Melick and Carol Schumacher|
Sitting with students and overhearing their conversations before class begins, a faculty member can't help but become more sensitive to the personal and academic pressures in their lives. "It was good to get an idea of how frantic students can be, the crises they suffer," says Hahnemann. "There are many students, or perhaps it's young people in general, who are troubled to a degree that I wasn't aware of."
Faculty members also come away with a deeper appreciation of how hard most Kenyon students work. "It's hard being a student!" smiles Professor of Political Science Kirk R. Emmert, who found himself struggling ten years ago in a course on Bach and Mozart taught by the late Professor of Music Kenneth L. Taylor. "I saw the kind of work that students have to put in, if they want to do well."
Associate Provost and Professor of Art Gregory P. Spaid '68 had a similar reaction when he participated in the seminar and fieldwork of the "Family Farm Project," coordinated by Professor of Sociology Howard L. Sacks. "I was really amazed at how committed the students were and the amount of time they put into the project. There was no student in the class who wasn't pulling his or her weight. It required a lot of independence, and they exercised that independence beautifully."
The students, for their part, tend to welcome professors as classmates. "I was struck by their friendliness and their willingness to accept me as a student," says Cowles, who, in addition to Greek, has taken German, French history, and drama classes. "There was a deference but also a playfulness that the students showed with me."
The student perspective serves as a healthy reminder to faculty members that, while it is professorial expertise which makes a liberal-arts education possible, the liberal arts ultimately aim at something both less than and more than academic mastery. "The pleasure of the undergraduate liberal-arts setting is the mixture of seriousness and openness that students bring to class," says Clarvoe, recalling her experience in the Thoreau seminar. "There were a good number of senior English majors in the course, and they went into Thoreau in-depth, but it wasn't about becoming Thoreau specialists. They continued to connect the material to their own lives and to big questions from other fields."
For Clarvoe and others, one of the great appeals of taking a course is the engagement in learning without the responsibility of teaching. "As a student," says Clarvoe, "you don't have to worry about the gravitational pull of what you say. It was a relief to be able to enjoy this role. I got caught up in discussions and left the orchestrating to the guy at the head of the table."
As professional learners, faculty members luxuriate in this return to origins, the immersion in learning as a gift bestowed. "For fifty minutes, three times a week, I had nothing to think about but Italian," says Professor of Drama Harlene Marley, remembering special classes in that language taught by the late J. Edward Harvey of the French faculty. "It was something completely different and totally engaging."
In adopting the relatively passive role of student, faculty members can appreciate more fully the very active effort that their colleagues put into teaching. "I came in at 4:00 p.m. and slumped in a chair," laughs Camilla Cai about her year of German with Eve Moore. "My attitude was like the students': `Entertain me.' Whereas Eve came in prepared with something to challenge us, day after day."
As Professor of History Reed S. Browning puts it, "I'm impressed by how hard my colleagues work to have their courses flow smoothly. It's like a play. A lot goes on beforehand, in a sense backstage, to have the class move ahead effortlessly."
Browning, who has taken biology, English, and political science courses from his fellow Kenyon professors, argues that this deeper appreciation of colleagues is just one of the reasons why taking courses is more than simply a nice fringe benefit for the individual faculty member. "The advantages which accrue to the individual accrue to the community as well. You see other teachers in action, you see students and the classroom from a different point of view. These are community advantages."
Cowles adds, "You get to know your colleagues much better, you come to understand their vision. And you understand how other disciplines work. It builds bridges between departments, and those personal bridges help make the institution stronger, not just because you'll be able to help committees function more smoothly but because you have a larger sense of the goals of the institution."
It has never been easy for faculty members to find the time to take courses, given their professional and family responsibilities. And some professors feel that by heightening an emphasis on scholarly publication the College is making it more difficult for faculty members to undertake coursework.
Without disputing the importance of scholarship, Clarvoe suggests that course-work can be professionally nurturing in a similar way. "The two or three hours per week that you set aside for the class give your mind room to work in an unencumbered way. Then you can give something back to your own classes. That's the argument for recreation of any kind, isn't it? You're doing it so that you can re-create. You're not just checking out; you're checking back in again."
Every professor seems to have a wish-list of courses that he or she would take, if only there were enough time. Carol Schumacher would take the political-science department's "Quest for Justice." Camilla Cai would study Asian religion. Andy Niemiec would undertake a physics major, with a concentration in scientific computing. Reed Browning is in fact hoping to dedicate part of his sabbatical next year to taking precalculus, calculus, and music theory.
"Learning, learning, learning, learning," says Cowles. "That's why I keep taking courses. There's a wonderful stimulation and pleasure in learning as a student. You should just always be learning. It's a way to stay alive."
Do you have feedback on this page?