Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Week's Big Thirsty...

Q: What Was the Best Class You Ever Took In College, And Have You Utilized Things You Learned There in Your Own Teaching?


43 comments:

  1. First place is a five-way tie, between (1) an lower-level undergrad intro to space class at Kennedy Space Center I sat in on as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, (2) a grad-level seminar on star formation that I sat in on as a postdoc, (3) a grad-level stellar atmospheres class I took as a grad student, (4) a grad-level stellar interiors and nucleosynthesis class I took as an undergrad, (5) sophomore-level Comp Lit, also called "Intro to Western Literature," featuring selected works by Homer, God, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Moliere, and Goethe. (God is a very uneven writer, but when he's at his best he's tough to beat.) Of course I have used all of them extensively in my own teaching, particularly the Greek mythology from Ovid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Funny you should mention God's writing style. This morning Slate published God's MFA writing workshop.

      Delete
  2. This is a really good thirsty...

    Taking the question as limited to undergrad classes (just to make the answer manageable), my best classes were all associated with some particular instructors. One of my English profs who taught a class on Restoration lit and another on Milton remains a favorite instructor and an inspiration in terms of how to present content without talking down to students; an astronomy class I took to satisfy my general ed requirements serves as a model of organizational efficiency for me; and a particular philosophy and religious studies in instructors, with whom I took MANY classes, absolutely can be credited with inspiring my slightly theatrical style of lecturing. These were all great teachers whom I strive to emulate on some level.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Tough question. The influential professor on my own teaching style was my advisor, who managed to be warm and thoughtful to students who were engaged and utterly distanced from those who clearly didn't want to be there. I don't mean to suggest that this was fantastic pedagogy, but I've watched him completely shut down the snowflakes while giving me three hours of his time to go over the smallest details in my work. He also admirably managed to avoid all but the most important committee work (EPT). He was able to keep the gossip and politics of the job completely out of his life. This guy even gave me an independent study while on sabbatical (the rule was that I had to travel to his house to meet).

    But my favorite class was a 700-level Art History course on 1980's feminist art. It helped open my eyes in ways that continue to pay off (I continually advise my students to take electives outside of their degree program).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Cognitive Neuroscience, in grad school. Team-taught by two faculty, using a packet method - Each class (or small set of classes), we'd receive a packet of about 50-100 pages (in addition to the textbook). The packet would have some whole short articles, some figures from other articles, and a few seminal-paragraph type things. The lecture would then consolidate the information from a staggeringly large number of primary sources into a meaningful big picture of neurocognition. The lectures were superior. Several of us met once a week to pre-discuss the material, and we stayed on top of the readings because if we got behind we were sunk. The midterm and final - the course's only assessments - were eight-hour take-home exams on the honor system. Start the clock, unseal the envelope, and seal the resultant essays back up eight hours later. We spent weeks organizing the information before the exams, and all met one weekend morning - started a communal clock, and disappeared into our offices to work. It was one of the hardest classes with the most work I have ever taken, and the course in which I learned the most information that I then retained.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh - and I have not yet taught a class in which I could teach at such a high level. However, I have tried to utilize the value of sharing primary sources with students, and I have tried to model for students the transition from details to big picture.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great question! My very first semester as a grad student, I was the only M.A. student in a seminar full of Ph.D. students studying Beowulf (the real thing, not a translation). It was a sink-or-swim situation and I had to learn how to swim very quickly, mostly on my own. It worked. I don't teach Beowulf because it's outside my field of specialization, but the experience strongly influenced my tendency to take a hands-off approach with advanced students in my field, challenging them to stretch beyond their abilities. Plus I occasionally get to impress students with my ability to recite the opening passages of Beowulf from memory. Hwaet that!

    ReplyDelete
  7. 1) Physiological Psychology-changed my career path from clinician to neuroscientist. Awesome professor who became my advisor and mentor. I have only gotten to teach this class a few times but it is one of my favorites.
    2) Since I was at a liberal arts colleges I want to give a shout out to my Poetry Writing class. The professor was tough- she only gave As to people she was telling to become poets. She really pushed me; I earned an A and still write today.

    ReplyDelete
  8. My undergrad genetics class. It was taught in the Ag college by my all time favorite undergrad prof. He used practical examples in the class since most students were headed to family farm, crop consulting, etc, yet we learned genetics. It was not an easy class, but he had a way of making it seem important to most students. Later I taught for him as both an undergrad and Master's student. I use many teaching techniques I learned from him!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Best class was an upper level class offered by the English department: Drama Workshop. I was a science major and a bit out of place as the only non-major enrolled in the class. I did participate in the University theatre group so I knew the instructor quite well. I was able to dove tail a one act play I was directing for the group into the course for credit. Lesson learned - body language and enunciation matter when communicating ideas with words. Do either wrong and the spoken words fall flat and have no impact on the observer.

    ReplyDelete
  10. If by "college" you mean "undergrad", I can't answer, since I skipped that part. While ostensibly an engineering sophomore, I skipped class (just took and aced the tests) and headed over to the Physics and Math institutes (different locations), where I sat in on graduate courses without being enrolled. Eventually the profs at these places got used to seeing me, and allowed me to join their programs formally without an UG degree (another place, another time.) This experience is completely non-transferable.

    It's hard to pin down a course, but I'll list the group of courses that convinced me to (mostly) leave theoretical physics and stick with math: Geometric Theory of Dynamical Systems, Classical Mechanics and Ergodic Theory. (The last one taught by my adviser.) What I found was that in math it was possible to derive/understand everything completely and independently, if I just applied myself enough; while in Physics, you had to accept many arguments of authority, or compute things in a certain way merely due to tradition.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As for the second question: due to my experience, my classes never have an attendance requirement. And as an undergraduate advisor, if I recognize a smart, motivated student I try to get him/her out of the intro classes and into the "good stuff" (upper div of grad level) as fast as possible.

      The professors I liked were researchers who showed me things that, at first, seemed way over my head; so I had to go back and read until I had mastered the prerequisites on my own. If I tried to teach like that, I'd be out of a job in no time; it's torture for me to "teach by the book", but I have no choice.

      Delete
    2. Early on, I also realized that I didn't mind drinking from a fire hose, if the water sparkled. It's out the question today, of course. I feel sorry for the handful of good students I still get: I wish the ed-school pundits would stop doing them "favors."

      Delete
    3. So how do I "teach by the book" without going loco? I use the opportunity to write a new book. It's fun, particularly since I do most of my own artwork and photography.

      Delete
    4. Frod, I've tried the experiment of basing lower-division courses (differential equations/ linear algebra for STEM majors) on my own lecture notes (proto-textbooks, sitting in my hard drive). What I found out is that students will use just that fact--regardless of how much easier or harder or more motivated it is than what they're used to--to hang a claim of "unreasonable expectations" on. Even just picking a standard textbook that's different from what other sections use has been accepted by my department heads as reasonable grounds for complaint. So I'm not going there again. The typical student I teach is too weak for anything but mass-produced mush.

      Delete
    5. Michael Spivak no doubt felt this way when he wrote Calculus, and we loved it. Write something like that. Another good one is Geometry and the Imagination, by David Hilbert.

      Delete
  11. Sorry about that ^.

    Mine was an Art Appreciation class, at a CC, before I had figured out what I wanted to do. The prof himself was an artist, and we learned so much about numerous pieces and their meaning. The class ended with a trip to an art museum. The same prof taught drawing and printmaking classes, which I also took, just because he was so great. I am not an artist and I have no artistic talent, but he took the time to help me develop what little skills I had, and he was always kind. His teaching has had a lasting effect on me, and on showing me how to be the kind of professor that I wanted to become.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Best college course I ever took wasn't a college course, but a grade 13 History of Western Civilization course taught by a teacher who wanted it to be like a college course. I know a hell of a lot more about the French Revolution compared to all my science colleagues (and you can still usually refer back to it when talking about any major insurrection in the world today). He berated us, shamed us, humiliated us for starting exam essays with statements like "That is a good question. ..." But all those things were done 'in a nice way', and making it clear to us that we'd be wasting other people's time, and particularly our own, if we wrote bullsh*t crap down in our assignments and tests. The class started at 25, whittled down to about 6, but everyone of those 6 is now an academic or has a job which holds some sort of position of authority attainable only by having a postgraduate degree. I heard that the teacher later had a nervous breakdown because education policy had changed such that he could no longer teach the class the way he used to, and he couldn't stand having to handle mouthbreathers with kid gloves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh yeah, 2nd part of thirsty - I am probably much more of a hard ass about making students 'learn', rather than 'memorize', compared to a lot of my colleagues, because of the influence of this teacher. It doesn't make me popular, and my upper year courses have low enrollments; I'm loathed by the entitled lazy asses who go elsewhere to take easier courses, and I'm totally fine with that.

      Delete
    2. This reminded me of an Analysis teacher I had on my senior year in high school. We had tests every month, and as he returned them to the students he would read the grades out loud and berate/belittle/humiliate the students with a smile on his face: "sad and regrettable!" "O person of limited abilities!" "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" "I'm so disappointed!" We loved him for it (well, most of us), it was so over the top and sincere. Of course, completely out of the question these days.

      Delete
    3. OMFG, you do that these days, and you will be accused of damaging them for life! The result of this, of course, is a new generation that is astonishingly fragile.

      Delete
  13. I took a lit course with a retired actor. He read beautifully, and didn't mind when we slept or snored. He just kept at it. About half the class failed and they were dumbfounded. I was half in love with hearing him read, so I read on my own, even though the material had not been something I was interested in.

    I always wanted to be like him, to teach what I loved fully, and to let the chips / undergrads fall where they may.

    ReplyDelete
  14. To satisfy one of my general education requirements, I took an architecture field study course. It met once a week, and we spent three hours each class wandering around a neighborhood, learning about the architecture and history of the area, and hearing fascinating (and sometimes funny) stories about the design, architects, and sometimes quirky inhabitants of the buildings. The professor even invited us over for tea after the class in which we visited her home neighborhood.

    Some of you will loathe her for the fact that she did that (yes, she offered us cookies along with the tea), but it was a great experience for me. She worked hard to make class interesting and engaging, while at the same time having very high standards and giving us very challenging tests. I learned a lot about architecture and the city I lived in, I was able to get to know my professor as a person (and not just an information-filled robot), and I gained a role model and a friend. I still visit her whenever I'm back in town, and it's great to have built a long-lasting relationship with someone from taking a course I didn't originally want to take (even if we only see each other once every year or two).

    I do think that a lot of what I learned from her (and some of my other professors) affects how I run my classroom. I do share a bit about myself in the classroom, both because I enjoy being seen as a person more than a robot, and also because I know that every once in a while a student will be able to relate to something I say, and it might help them stay engaged in class. But at the same time, students know that I won't deal with petty bullshit and I won't lower my standards or expectations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's really quite valuable for a professor to have students over at least once. I usually invite one of my major classes once a year or so to come to my house, have some wine (for my seniors, otherwise, coffee), and chat for a bit. They stain my carpet, knock things off shelves, make hilarious social faux pas, and so on. But it's really good practice for them to learn to be grown-ups.

      There's a far cry between that and handing out treats in class. And I certainly wouldn't make it a habit to have them over multiple times a semester. Once a year is as much as my furniture can stand.

      Delete
  15. Best course I took as an undergrad was one I never took, but I graded homework and papers for the professor who did teach the history class on American Icons (a broad historical and interdisciplinary overview of influential people and ideology in the history of the US). I had to read all of the texts and discuss with the professor. I don't teach history, but I do use info from that course in one of my Class & Gender courses.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Senior year, December 1992, Extra-mural studies course: 3 weeks in Paris studying the roots of Modernism in art and literature. Read Zola, Gide. Museum trips almost daily. Influenced my decision to study 19th/20th c lit in graduate school. Still use what I learned in that course in the Modern lit course I teach.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Freshman German Literature with a professor who was a minor German author. He *ripped* every paper I wrote to shreds - there were only 4 or 5 of us in the course - and sat out on the grass with us discussing the fine points of German Literature. He taught me to write, period. So I gleefully rip the writings of my own dear flakes to shreds as they stumble though their lab notes on hamster fur weaving. Even engineers have to be able to write complete sentences, IMHO.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Best undergrad class: intro to women's studies, freshman year, which was also an intro to the ways that various disciplines think about a common set of questions. We both read and heard lectures by people who would be recognized, in the 5-10 years that followed, as founders of a new field.

    And I loved that field, in part, because it offered lots of room for new research on authors and texts that had received very little critical attention so far. That preference, and my own teaching, both stem in part from some of the best teaching I received as a high school student: in history, where we spent a lot of time with DBQs. I understand that those may have been debased over the intervening years (or perhaps my high school teachers simply taught them especially well, and/or the absence of the temptation to look up the "right answer" on the internet made them more effective), but, to my mind, they teach a core skill: how to make (or, in this case, often re-make) knowledge based on primary sources and some idea of the questions that scholars who have gone before have asked (but no singular/simple "right answer").

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, document-based questions. (But I had to google it.)

      Delete
    2. Standard part of AP History exams (and maybe the IB, too, I'm not sure). Apparently some people hate them, but I thought they were great (admittedly, this was 35 or so years ago).

      Delete
  19. Three of the best classes I took were all out of my subject area. One was Chaucer, and I had to petition to get into it as a non major. The Prof was physically and intellectually a giant. Arrogant, terrifying, demanding, humiliating. Earning an A- in that class felt like winning a MacArthur Genius Grant. Or what I imagine that would feel like.

    I took two other courses on Dante's Divine Comedy (in the original version, though not nearly so tough to chew on as Beowulf in the original !). Beautifully and passionately taught.

    Damn. This thread is making me wish I could be a student again. Kind of. But not really.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Because I switched jurisdictions between high school and undergrad, I had a slot in my first year schedule, and took a higher level course that didn't have too many pre-reqs, so I thought I'd get to it now. It was a big step and I was on the edge of failing at midterm time. The course had a weekly discussion session, usually run by TA's, but I wound up in the one section the prof ran himself. We read classic papers in the field and discussed the issues they raised, the evidence, and the current state of knowledge. The prof really knew his stuff, and could steer the discussion between the twin shoals of naive acceptance and cynical dismissal. It was challenging and exciting, and I really got to understand learning as an enquiry rather than as received information. I spent more time thinking about that class that semester than all the others put together. I pulled up to a respectable grade by the final, and I've stayed in the field (well, a closely related sub discipline) ever since.

    ReplyDelete
  21. My three best courses (1 undergrad, 2 grad) were all advanced labs. The runners up were all mathematically intensive, highly rigorous theory classes (again, 2 grad 1 undergrad). All were taught by crusty old proffies either nearing retirement or already emeritus doing it because they loved it except the undergrad senior-lab where the instructor of record was some fresh-meat assistant but everything important came from the building gadget-guy (a "mere" MS with decades of practical experience) who had been there when the kit was first built and used to do cutting edge science and knew untold things about how to finesse the real problems that come up in the lab.

    I haven't yet gotten to teach any of it, but I used some of it while I was postdocing and I've gotten to pass some of the gems along to other students and postdocs over the years.

    ReplyDelete
  22. It isn't surprising to me, but worth noting, how many of these were general education courses outside of our majors.

    For me, it was a required Gen Ed. Ancient History to the Middle Ages, the first in a sequence of two that ended, if I recall correctly, at the very first glimpses of the 20th century. I was a freshman.

    The professor would begin every class with a question. He'd lean back in his chair, stare at the ceiling, and say "Susan, the Aztecs would tear the hearts out of prisoners of war because they believed that the world would end if they did not. Were they right?" And if poor Susan said "No," he'd glower at her. "How do you know?" If she was smart enough to say "They don't do that anymore, and the world hasn't ended," then he'd say "Were they right to do that, or wrong?" If she said "Wrong," he'd say "But they were saving the world! At least in their own minds." If she said, Quetzelcoatl help her, "We can't judge them for what they believed," he'd turn red and thunder: "We CAN judge them. I am judging them right now. Clearly I can! The question is, should we?"

    He was hated by almost everyone. But not me. I was terrified of him (oh, my God, what he did to our papers! And mercy on you if you looked at the clock or yawned). But I learned in that class what it was to think. It was to ask questions, and the better the questions, the harder the questions, the better the thinking.

    So, with a lot less direct ferocity, that's what I do with my classes. And it works pretty well, all in all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's sad that these days we have to repress the ferocity (or the occasional deserved light sarcasm), lest some student complain about feeling "demeaned".

      Delete
  23. A freshman seminar in linguistics and literature. Who knew reading literature had a method? Who knew that my propensity for reading the dictionary could lead me to a field of study? So exhilarating. Needless to say, I'm an English Prof now. A close runner up was "Women's Issues in French Literature." I didn't think I cared about French literature, but this teacher loved her material so deeply and was so smart about it that by the end of the course I was in love too.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I remember teachers more than individual classes, and there were a few that I learned a lot from, not just about the subject matter, but about teaching.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Having said that, I spent two spring terms (3.5 to 4 weeks each) studying at the UN and living in New York city. 20 years old, cash in pocket, on my own in New York City! HEAVEN!!!

      Delete
  25. Senior year, Human Genetics. Prof asked us to write fiction illustrating the real world personal consequences of the diseases we were studying. 80 hard core science nerds all crapped themselves. It was beautiful.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Undergrad American history. I loved that class. The professor sprinkled just enough asides in history and just enough humor that I looked forward to that class every time it met, And took notes And remembered it! I do the same thing, little aside snippets of history in my Hamster Appreciation classes.

    ReplyDelete
  27. History and Philosophy of Science. Late afternoon lectures in a very old-fashioned tiered semi-circular theatre type room made entirely of wood, which covered huge amounts of ground and assumed you'd read and were ready to go beyond the readings, where dusty sunlight striped the room from high windows and I felt like I'd got a brief glimpse of heaven (heaven has great questions!). Madly eccentric tutor who smashed our respect for written authority for the sake of it (he had those plaster busts of great philosophers in his office, had sawed off the top of their heads to make them flat and used them as part of his own-build bookshelves made out of unfinished planks "because the maths department only allows us so many feet of bookshelves and I had this empty wall...") then showed us how to build our own from reading and arguing with their works. He literally argued with books sometimes. This was heady stuff for a scientist who'd really, really wanted to do history A-level but not been permitted to combine it with maths (and at the time I thought Physics was the best kind of science, so really needed the maths). Very like Chiltepin's professor, now I think on it - our first essay was "Aristotle was wrong. Discuss"

    And perhaps the other really formative class would be Microbial Physiology, because I found it tedious beyond belief but easy to study for, whilst two of my friends adored it (and when last heard from one of them was a senior postdoc in a Yeast Lab and the other worked in disease control on antibiotic resistant microbes) but found it relatively hard to work out what the essay assignments wanted (fortunately they took the lead in the labs. The smaller the lab-subject, the easier I seemed to find it to cause it to misbehave...).

    One thing I took from that was that if your class is any good, some students will adore your class, others will be bored. If everyone is kinda happy then you are probably not challenging anyone, just making life easy for the mildly-slacking and leaving the super-keens more time to study whatever course this semester does catch their imagination. It made me much more sanguine about the occasional vituperative comment in evaluations...

    Also, both those teachers were hard on students because they believed in us - they believed that we were capable of doing better, of escaping from sloppy thinking and easy answers, and they CARED that we do better. And that is one of the things I want to do for my students - I want to get across to them that I believe they can be great, they can exceed all their expectations, and that I am prepared to put in the work to support them if they're going to work too.

    Excellent Thirsty

    ReplyDelete
  28. Undergrad - Greek & Biblical Traditions; Satire (English); Frye & McLuhan (English)
    B Ed - not one damn class was even slightly eventful/useful!
    Grad school - Power, Knowledge, Critique; Globalization

    I would like to believe that I am able to incorporate the positive attributes that I learned from those classes into my own teaching. But, who the hell knows for sure....

    ReplyDelete