The Virtues of Crazy

Professors know that inspired silliness can bring ideas to life in the classroom

You never know what you'll find when you peek inside a professor's pedagogical toolbox. At Kenyon, you may discover a jar of "Gambier air," ready for auction, or a surprise midterm.

Those were just two of the ideas that faculty members shared last fall at a panel discussion on "crazy but effective" teaching practices. The panel was organized by Associate Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener, who had just started a four-year term as the John B. McCoy-Banc One Distinguished Teaching Professor.

In keeping with the chair's purpose of fostering teaching excellence, Holdener has planned a series of discussions on topics ranging from undergraduate research to the merits and perils of PowerPoint.

The fall panel grew out of an e-mail survey that she had sent to the recently graduated Class of 2007. While the students weighed in on professors who were good lecturers or discussion leaders, who created challenging assignments, and who fostered critical thinking, their most enthusiastic responses addressed a question about classroom craziness.

The panel featured four professors cited by students as particularly adept at bringing ideas to life and making points stick through inspired silliness. Two of these inventive teachers:

Joel Richeimer of the philosophy faculty. Students can't cram for Richeimer's midterms, because he doesn't announce when they'll take place. He also arbitrarily changes the value of quizzes--one might be worth just 10 points, another 100 points--in order to undermine complacency. And he'll repeat quizzes, verbatim, giving negative grades if students make even one mistake on the second go-round. All of these diabolical practices are designed to keep students on their toes. "Students come to class on autopilot," said Richeimer. "They know the game very well. I try to sabotage the game."

Pamela Camerra-Rowe of the political science faculty. Fundamental concepts like "scarcity" have wide-ranging ramifications but can induce yawns in the classroom. Camerra-Rowe gets students to experience the idea by holding a mock auction. Her jar of utterly common Gambier air fails to elicit much interest. Not so when she auctions off "the one A I'm going to give out." Camerra-Rowe also demonstrated an exercise in which four people with different preferences have to agree on one way to spend Friday night. There were several perfectly fair ways to decide, but the outcome varied depending on which decision-making process was adopted. Rules matter. Lesson learned.

Other crazy professorial practices: hopping around like a squirrel (Robert Mauck of biology), dressing like a Nazi (Mac McCarthy of sociology), singing Yiddish songs (Fred Baumann of political science). To find out why they do these crazy things, you'll just have to take their courses.