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Reinvigorating the Classroom

This article was originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, The Teaching Forum.

Everything old is new again at the start of a new semester. The CFT asked three professors how they reinvigorate themselves and their classes at the start of a new semester. Kathryn Schwarz, an assistant professor of English, has been teaching for seven years, three of those at Vanderbilt. Professor A.-J. Levine is the Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality. She has been teaching for twenty years, five of those at Vanderbilt. Bob Janco, an associate professor of pediatrics, has been a teacher for twenty years, eighteen of those years at Vanderbilt.

CFT: How do you reinvigorate a class that you’ve taught before?

SCHWARZ: The main thing that reinvigorates courses for me is getting to the classroom and realizing that it’s not repetition, but that with each mix of students, there are tremendous differences: acceptance versus resistance to certain questions or issues, ways readings get pushed in directions I hadn’t foreseen. I try, in terms of structure, to change the courses, even if it’s technically the same course. I will teach a different set of texts or teach them in different relationships to one other. But most of it comes from the students, I think. They just are not interested in the same things as the students last fall were, and that’s tremendously useful to me, as long as I am aware that those shifts are happening. It often takes me by surprise, in a very pleasurable way.

LEVINE: I change the books I assign. I like combining classical texts with recent volumes; an up-to-date reading list keeps me fresh, and I can’t be efficient in my own academic work unless I know what’s out there. I start preparing for a class about a year in advance, checking to see what the books are, asking publishers for advance copies, asking colleagues at other universities for recommendations.

Another thing that happens in terms of classroom reinvigoration often comes from the students themselves. Each year, we have a new complement of students. One of the extraordinarily good things in the Divinity School and the Graduate Department of Religion is our international student body, and frequently their training and interests differ from those of students from, say, New England or from the West Coast or from the Southern U.S. To have that intersection in the classroom-with people from different locations saying what’s at stake for them- invigorates the class. I find myself able to sit back and just listen to the students talk to each other, and that’s a fascinating learning enterprise for everybody.

JANCO: A simple answer is that now I try to do most of my slides in PowerPoint. That means I just go through the slides and update them–it doesn’t cost any more money, and it allows me to review those slides and make them look better and put them in different order, or make new ones and throw away old ones. Another way to reinvigorate the classroom is to think about what recent scientific advances are relevant to the students’ learning. And the third thing is to try and figure out what clinical problems or case discussions are useful to get the learners involved in thinking about the material they hear.

CFT: How do you reinvigorate yourself at the beginning of a new semester?

SCHWARZ: I think a lot of that is about being as conscious as possible of the connections between my own writing and research and teaching because, at the end of a summer, it feels like coming out of a cocoon. I’ve been completely singleminded about some project for three months, and it feels as if, suddenly, I am confronting the idea of doing something entirely different. It’s important then, to remember that the connections are tremendously strong. Questions, issues, ideas come out of teaching very directly. Students will often see things with a kind of clarity that I’ve completely lost in my three-month-long cocoon.

Walking into a new class at the beginning of a semester is always startling to me, because it feels as if there’s a lot of continuity between semesters, in some ways, especially if one is repeating courses teaching in the same field. So, there is that sense of having to adjust to the newness, to that the fact that these are different students. I still get nervous; I still feel as if I have to make sure that this is going to work. It’s really exciting to get that first sense, in the first few days, of who these students are, how they’re different from one another and from previous students, what kinds of arguments they might imaginably have. I walk in there, and I have a sense of anxiety about pulling it together again, getting the energy up again, but, also, it’s fun to see the mix change and to see the possibilities be different from what they might have been the semester before.

LEVINE: I teach barefoot; in large lectures it affords me the opportunity of running up and down the aisles. It also removes some of the barrier between teacher and student. I’ve found that, once the classroom hierarchy is broken down, students are more likely to engage in discussion.

I also try to use as much humor as possible, risking, on the one hand, being inane, and on the other hand, being irreverent. My concern here is to encourage students to work with the Biblical materials, to wrestle with them, to see them not only as “inspired,” if this is their presupposition, but also as written by and for real people with real issues.

I do a substantial amount of adult education classes, local church and synagogue talks, and scholar-in-residence programs out of town. Since the majority of my students here at Vanderbilt are divinity students or graduate students who themselves will have an adult audience, I can say to them, “Here’s what so-and-so at such-and-such church asked me. Here’s a concern of a couple of members of such-and-such synagogue’s sisterhood or men’s club. How would you respond to them?” In that way, I can remove the text solely from being an historical artifact and make it clear that it’s a lived text. The questions always are current–the answers change. And that, in turn, helps invigorate me because I know that the contemporary problems are still there.

JANCO: I’m involved in a longterm project to put medical school course material on the World Wide Web and create an atemporal learning environment for medical students in their core clerkships. I think that it is possible to enhance students’ learning by making the curriculum adaptive-an anytime, anyplace sort of approach; I think much of the knowledge base that we’re expecting them to learn during these core clerkships can be placed on-line, so they can learn as they need it, which is, you know, the best way to learn. “Adult-style,” not “childhood- style,” in other words, not true pedagogy, but “androgogy,” if there is such a word. My interest is in trying to explore how we would do that, how we would develop the materials and content necessary for students to be able to do their own self-paced learning. So, for instance, they wouldn’t need to have a lecture on child development; they could learn the basics on their own, and then explore ideas or questions when the discussant or professor is present, rather than have the professor just give a 45-50 minute talk. The idea would be to exploit the technology– what it can do that a textbook cannot do. For instance, multimedia –if you have the time and effort and resources, you could develop little video clips of children that have normal and abnormal development. Students could compare one to the other; you could have audio of children learning how to speak and babbling, what’s abnormal and what’s normal.

CFT: What are concrete strategies you use to keep the classroom exciting?

SCHWARZ: The one thing that I would say that produces its own reinvigoration, automatically, is, for me, just rereading a few of the things that I’m going to be teaching. This is a strategy that helps me to realize that I don’t think the same thing that I thought the last time I read it, and that, therefore, my students won’t think the same things as previous students have or as I do.

LEVINE: In seminars where I ask the students to present papers, I will always, at some point during the seminar, produce one of my own works-in-progress. That gives the students the opportunity of critiquing me, which, for some reason, they always seem to enjoy enormously. It gives me their feedback; I frequently wind up being then able to footnote them, which, particularly for Ph.D. students, is quite nice. But it shows them, directly, a collaborative process, and thereby, for the Ph.D. candidates, breaks down the sense of “I have to be better than everybody! I need to make my career on the basis of trashing somebody else’s work!”

JANCO: Most of my teaching is done at the bedside during ward team rounds. The wards really are our classroom for the clinics. I’d say over 95 percent of the time there are students who are involved with our ward teams or in our clinics or in our subspecialty services, so I’m almost constantly teaching. Professors in academic health centers have a commitment to research, a commitment to patient care, and a commitment to teaching-as we face those competing demands, we try to figure out how we can be more efficient in our teaching role. We try to take advantage of what people commonly call “teachable moments”–a time when everything seems to come together, there’s a problem that needs to be solved, someone has a particular question, it’s relevant, it’s interesting, and through a group discussion, everybody learns about that particular issue or problem or fact. So we try to take advantage of those moments, and they particularly occur during rounds of the ward teams or in the clinic when seeing a patient.