Making the connection

This year's teaching award winners see success in terms of individual students

Mathematics. Russian.

They're not for the faint of mind. It's hard to imagine two more demanding subjects than those taught by the winners of this year's Trustee Teaching Excellence Awards. Both disciplines bristle with intricacies. Both require daily practice, which may yield only a meager fluency at first. In both subjects, a "gift" helps, but the rewards--those moments when it all makes sense--come through persistent grappling.

Gifts and grappling are evident in the teaching as well. The 2005 award winners, Professor of Mathematics Carol Schumacher and Associate Professor of Russian Natalia Olshanskaya, seem to connect with students almost instinctively. But instinct is inseparable from a seasoned awareness of what works in class. And from sheer dedication--to the' subject, but especially to individual students. For Schumacher, teaching is a means of "transforming the way people think about things." Olshanskaya wants her students to master grammar and savor great novels, but ultimately she is more interested in "what kind of people they turn out to be."

Reflecting on the art of teaching, they talk about their care' for students.

Natalia Olshanskaya

Some students just "get" languages, Natalia Olshanskaya acknowledges. "But I have a very strong belief that everyone can learn a foreign language," even a notoriously challenging language like Russian. "It's just that they learn differently."

Olshanskaya uses that conviction as a springboard, approaching every class with a willingness to accommodate individual differences. "I don't believe in rigid methods, just as I don't cook with recipes. The class should be individually tailored. And we're blessed at Kenyon, because we have small groups. There's a different rhythm with every class. Some can move more quickly. Some students are good at reading, others at speaking. I adjust to their performance."

One thing she does insist on is keeping up with the daily work--and she holds herself to the same standards she sets for her students. "Learning a language involves regularity," she observes. "There's a routine. I give an assignment every day, and I get it back to them the next day."

Her students "cannot fudge it," she says. "I don't like hypocrisy. I know when they don't make an effort, and I never pretend that I don't notice. I tell them straight in their face. It can be difficult. But in the end, they kind of like it."

That's actually an understatement. Olshanskaya's students are devoted to her, and not just because she regularly has them over for her famous piroshki and other Russian specialties. ("They hate borscht and stuffed cabbage, but I cook them anyway--it's part of the culture.") She believes in her students' capacity to succeed, to the point where, if someone is having trouble, she will sit down and do the homework with him, every day, until he gains confidence. More than one colleague has remarked that Olshanskaya (her friends call her Natasha, an informal version of Natalia) teaches with a motherly instinct, generous and firm in equal measures.

Kenyon's beginning language courses, which supplement daily classes with special drill sessions three or four times a week, foster close relationships. "One of the first topics is always family," Olshanskaya notes. "The students talk about their parents, their brothers and sisters, their pets; they bring in pictures. Soon we're covering professions; they talk about what their parents do. You really come to know a lot about them--where they have traveled, what kinds of houses they live in."

And for Olshanskaya, these things are important. In her eight years at Kenyon, she has taken the Russian program from struggling to sturdy. But she firmly believes that undergraduate education is mainly about personal growth. "It's not mostly about their learning Russian," she says. "The important thing is for them to find themselves and to find their talent. It's important for them to learn who they are, to appreciate themselves and start believing in themselves."

Carol Schumacher

Carol Schumacher says that some of her best moments in teaching are times "when I manage to keep my mouth shut."

Take the upper-level course "Foundations," which Schumacher sees as transforming students from "consumers of mathematical ideas" into reasoners "able to advance ideas on their own." A student will be working a problem at the board, someone will ask a question, and a fumbling argument will begin.

"Often it will start to look like it will dissolve into chaos," says Schumacher, "and I'm tempted to pull out the example that will make it all clear. But I often find that if I keep my mouth shut for two minutes longer, they will be able to resolve the problem themselves."

In her seventeen years of teaching at Kenyon, Schumacher has honed a strong pedagogical philosophy: "Every time I can substitute something that the students do themselves for something that I used to do, it's worthwhile."

Learning, she says, is like climbing a staircase, and when students face a particularly high step, she won't "give them the password to use the elevator." Instead, she lets them wrestle until they get stuck and ask a question: the breakthrough, in a sense, comes when the question emerges from their own thinking. "Then I give them a nudge--it's like providing a small step in between--so that they can get to the next stage and work until they get stuck again."

Despite studying with an inspiring undergraduate mentor, Schumacher had ruled out a teaching career until she began tutoring other students in calculus and discovered the pleasures of helping others see their way to clarity. Working individually with students is still her favorite part of teaching. "I can deal with exactly where they are in their thinking. It's very satisfying to see individual progress in such a direct way."

In fact, she views regular one-on-one meetings with students as a crucial extension of the classroom. "Some students see going to a professor's office to ask questions as an admission of failure," she notes. "Those are the students who have trouble in my classes."

One of her favorite courses is "Surprises at Infinity," which she designed for students "who otherwise wouldn't darken the door of a math course." Schumacher says, "It's not a 'dumbed-down' math course. The ideas are quite sophisticated. From some pretty simple assumptions, we can get amazing results. We can show, for instance, that there are different sizes of infinity. We come to believe things that are not only not obvious, but are often counter-intuitive."

Above all, the course opens a window onto the rigorous wonders of mathematical reasoning. The students come to see that math "is not about moving symbols around on paper; it can be about triumphs of the human intellect."

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