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A room, a table, and a dozen chairs

The Baltimore Sun is running an article on Page One this morning about the arrival of the iPad on college campuses and how it is expected that that will change higher education.

No doubt it will, though one of my colleagues at Loyola has learned to shut off access to the Internet in the computer lab where he teaches so that his students don’t spend the entire class period on Facebook.

And I do not mean to stand in Luddite scorn at the Big Things that electronics are bringing to campus. Electronic access opens up a multitude of additional resources and can improve communication. In an increasingly electronic and interconnected world, it’s important not to fall behind, and vital to explore new possibilities.

But still, I remember wistfully my first look at a classroom at St. John’s College in Annapolis when my son enrolled there: a plain room with a table in the middle, a dozen chairs around the table, and a blackboard on one wall. Internet and iPad aside, that room was fully equipped for education.

Put in it a knowledgeable teacher, a group of students eager to learn, and some books. Let them read those books analytically and dissect one another’s arguments and master the rigors and precision of mathematics. Let them learn how to think and how to express their thoughts effectively. To do that, they already have with them the equipment for thinking.

If you don’t have that knowledgeable teacher or those students wanting to learn how to think, no amount of gadgetry will simulate an education.

School is starting again, and I’ll leave you today with the most valuable piece of advice I got as an undergraduate. In my freshman year at Michigan State, I was talking with Jean Nicholas in the Romance languages department about courses.

She said: Don’t take subjects; take teachers. If you want to learn a subject, go to the library. For your classes, find out who the interesting teachers are. You’re here to explore a variety of personalities and worldviews and senses of humor, and for that you have to choose teachers, not subjects.

Whenever I took that advice, I did well. Whenever I went against it, I wasted my time.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

In my (college senior) opinion, a great teacher is one of many keys to a student's keychain to accessing a great education. Along with charisma, humor, honest intelligence, and good presentation skills, the ability to connect with the students is what makes students shut their laptop that had Facebook on it and pay attention.

I know in my years here at the University of Massachusetts I have learned the most from the teachers who could simply connect with me as an intelligent human. Someone who could engage me in a conversation; one way of grabbing my attention and holding onto it is UTILIZING technology, not being afraid of it. The worst of my professors either just didn't use technology at all, or they tried and failed horribly by insisting their (15 year old) version of education is the most efficient.

While iPads certainly will not make a student study more, it will most definitely help us students study more efficiently and more often due to the ease of use it provides. Now just to get the textbook publishers on board with Apple and iBooks...

Joseph's comment is worth reading. It's not a case of needing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Technology CAN be a tool for efficiency and wider access. Imagine back in the dark ages (the 60's) being able to access the libraries in London for a paper! The key is stimulation that has a focus on the topic, not the tool.

(By the way, Joseph, my first Master's degree was from UMass.)

I teach two writing classes in an engineering department. In the graduate class, I have a room, a table, and a dozen chairs. Instead of a chalkboard, I have a whiteboard (it's a relatively new building). I also have a computer and projector that I use occasionally to help students learn how to get things they need from online sources. I love teaching that class.

In the other, I have a room, 24 tables, and about 150 chairs, all full. I have a whiteboard I almost never use, a computer I sometimes use, and a microphone I always use. Helping students improve their writing in that venue is, to say the least, challenging.

Another instructor who also uses the room with the 150 chairs doesn't need a microphone (he's got a big, loud voice) and never turns on the computer. Our students picked him as the department's outstanding teacher last year (our first year for the award).

Joseph is right: students turn off the distractions if the class is interesting, engaging, and meaningful.

The technologies available to students today take them farther than I thought about going 40 years ago when I was an undergraduate and farther than I dreamed of going 20 years ago when I was in grad school, and I wouldn't want to go back.

But I also don't want to let go of my room, my table, and my dozen chairs.

One of my professors was a dreadful lecturer, clutching his notes, making barely any eye contact, and becoming flustered when questions were asked. He answered, but it was painful for me to be in the classroom because it was painful for him.

Near the end of the semester, I was ill for several days and confined to the infirmary. When I got the form, I went around to each of my professors. I talked to this particular professor about why I had missed class, asked about what I'd missed in the lectures and also asked a couple of questions that had been niggling for weeks.

Much to my surprise, he was expansive and relaxed when we talked, giving fluid, comprehensive answers that really clarified the course material.

When I suggested to him that he should meet with each student personally over the course of the semester, he looked at me in horror and said he'd never have time to do that. Maybe not, but if he had found some way to conduct a class the way he conducted himself in office hours, he would have taught me much more.

Dr. Roy Helton was my favorite teacher of all time, a professor of Biblical Studies at Belmont University, Nashville, TN. He was about 5'6" and weighed, I guess, about 130 pounds. When I met him in 1954 and had him in class, I thought surely he was 10 feet tall. I majored in biblical studies and thus had him for a good number of courses. I remember little of what he said in class, but when I visited him a few years ago, just a week before his death at age 93, I still thought he was 10 feet tall. I think it was becasue he cared about me, and all his students, and we felt that care. We did good work because he instilled in us an attitude of "I can do it." And we did. I've taught now for 50 years and his memory still inspires me -- that little professor who believed in me more than I believed in myself. It made all the difference in the world! "Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul."

Dr. Roy Helton was my favorite teacher of all time, a professor of Biblical Studies at Belmont University, Nashville, TN. He was about 5'6" and weighed, I guess, about 130 pounds. When I met him in 1954 and had him in class, I thought surely he was 10 feet tall. I majored in biblical studies and thus had him for a good number of courses. I remember little of what he said in class, but when I visited him a few years ago, just a week before his death at age 93, I still thought he was 10 feet tall. I think it was becasue he cared about me, and all his students, and we felt that care. We did good work because he instilled in us an attitude of "I can do it." And we did. I've taught now for 50 years and his memory still inspires me -- that little professor who believed in me more than I believed in myself. It made all the difference in the world! "Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul."

The room, the table, the chairs, the blackboard, with the addition of a CD player and/or the current version of a slide projector are all a good instructor needs to teach music or art history - a piano can be helpful for music, but new electronic toys can't teach students to hear better or understand musical style. Not every field is ripe for electronic plunder. And languages don't require a roomful of stuff (old engineering term) either. A little interest on the part of the students is also immensely helpful. Teachers shouldn't be expected to do all the work in the classroom.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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