On 8 December 2009, I visited Adam Rose’s course [Great Ideas I]. Adam’s syllabus for the course is very thorough about the expectations, assignments, and grading policy of the course. He notes in the syllabus that he will apply the “Socratic Method” in the classroom, a decision that requires students to actively engage with the material and take responsibility for their education. It is clear that Adam has mastered the art of using this method in the classroom, as the students in this class were actively engaged and understood what was expected of them.
Seventeen students were in attendance on the day I visited, out of a total of 23 students listed as enrolled in the course. The students sat in a square, which provided a discussion-friendly environment. According to the syllabus, the students were expected to have read a selection from Francis Bacon’s New Organon. All of the students had the selection in front of them at the start of the class. After making a few announcements about forthcoming classes and the final exam, Adam led the students through a discussion of the text.
A large number of students participated in the discussion of the material. Although they often responded to questions Adam posed to the class, a few times they also engaged in dialogue with one another about certain ideas. This was not an easy selection, but Adam engaged the students in a very close reading of the text that allowed the students to work through the author’s purpose and assertions. When students struggled to verbalize their ideas about a particular passage, Adam would encourage them to try to clarify their points. He never answered for them, but instead helped them find their voice. The pace of the discussion helped in this regard, as Adam never rushed the students; instead, he gave them time to develop their ideas and assertions. Adam was patient and extremely helpful in guiding them towards a greater understanding of the author’s meaning and, more broadly, its relevance to ideas outside of the text.
During the course of the discussion, one of the students noted that the selection raised themes that had been explored in a previous work discussed in the class. A second student concurred, noting its relevance to another reading. It was impressive to see these students make these connections. Clearly Adam designed the syllabus with this continuity and connection in mind, but he did not feed the students this information. The student’s insights were a testament to his ability to elicit thoughtful reflections from his students.
This particular class showed Adam to be an exceptional teacher. This was a very intellectually stimulating class, and Adam did a wonderful job leading the class to think critically about the ideas expressed in Bacon’s work. He obviously has thought deeply about how to teach this course and his efforts could serve as a model for other instructors.
As is often the case with my undergraduate teaching, the evaluations by the students in this course were quite mixed. Indeed, a number complained that I was not doing my job properly. For example, one student lamented that s/he had to turn to “Sparknotes to get a better understanding of the book” and suggested that I “have a better book in class rule and answer the questions with an answer not a question”. Another acknowledged that “not only did he make us think about each text individually, but also with each other” but also requested “more involvement from professor. Not just students saying what they think because even then we don’t know who is right and wrong”. A few students, however, seem to have “got it” — including one who commented:
He gave us challenging questions that were sometimes perceived as impossible to answer, but contributed to our overall undertanding of the text.
In a more recent periodic evaluation of my teaching, however, the chairman of one of the undergraduate departments in which I teach had a face-to-face discussion with one of my classes about their experience in my class. (I was not present during the discussion.) According to the chairman’s report of the meeting:
I […] had a substantial talk with all of the students, in which everyone talked. Their unanimous opinion was that Adam was […] really passionately committed to his teaching, and their learning, and that he pushed them in a challenging but positive way. It was really clear to me that they meant this; they strongly wanted to say this; they seemed bright and serious, and I was moved and impressed by their adult attitude toward their education, and the value that they placed on Adam’s class as a part of that.
Maybe I’m getting better …