In the foreground is the clocktower of Lasell Gymnasium. Across the street is the steeple of Thompson Memorial Chapel. Photo: Mark Rondeau, January 2007.


(From On Campus, the Williams College commencement newspaper, June 2006)

By Mark E. Rondeau

From its earliest days, Williams College built its reputation around teachers and teaching. Mark Hopkins, a Williams professor from 1830 to 1887, pioneered the focus on the student as the center of the educational experience, immortalized in the now-famous quote: “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”

Today, the emphasis on extraordinary teaching continues. “It seems to be impossible to cleanly articulate what makes a great teacher,” said Math Professor Thomas Garrity, head of the college’s Project for Effective Teaching. “All I know is that my colleagues at Williams are great teachers. Their individual styles can be completely different, ranging from the outrageously flamboyant to the seriously intense. What the Williams faculty seem to share is a rare combination of passionate commitment to both scholarship and teaching.”

What do the students find in the classroom? How do professors think about and refine their approach to teaching? There is no single answer, no one log.

Inspiring Confidence

A session of Drawing I this spring began with Art Professor Ed Epping setting up a variety of still-life subjects. He explained to his class of 20 that they would be drawing on a smaller piece of paper than they had previously used. Epping detailed the process.

“First, I want you to use that pictureframe viewfinder and look for a section of the still life. You don’t have to focus on all of the objects that you see, just one small section is sufficient,” he said. “What I ask you to locate within that section, however, is a range of contrasts. So look for where there are the most dramatic contrasts ... that will be the focus of your work on this smaller piece of paper.”

Epping said it’s important that beginning art students feel they can take risks. Before they arrive at Williams, many students have encountered art teachers with rigid definitions of what is and isn’t art. He uses a logical and linear step-by-step process to develop skill and inspire confidence.

“Once my students complete the first step,” he said, “they feel prepared for the second, third, fourth and fifth. The discipline of learning the craft of drawing is to remain focused, attentive, and dutiful to all of the things in which I’m instructing them. If they do that, the students are going to learn how to draw and in doing so, learn to trust me.”

When discipline, craft, and trust are established, they can move on to the question he poses in his upper-level classes: “How do we make images more powerful and more meaningful?”

Judith Boggess ’08 said Epping is very engaged in the work of his students.

“His teaching brings out something we might not have known we possessed,” she said. “Clearly, he is not bored teaching beginners – he does not rush through things, but thoroughly instructs his students in the most basic concepts, providing a strong foundation for more advanced work.”

In his Drawing I class, Epping moved from student to student, bending over their drawings, often making an observation or two in a low voice; frequently he and the student would laugh before he moved on.

Said Boggess, “I find his attention reassuring. His comments are more helpful than critical. If he sees something that doesn’t work, rather than focusing on that, he will talk around it and make me realize how I can apply the positive qualities of a drawing to the problem areas.”

Chemistry Meets Music

Chemistry Professor Thomas Smith ’88 frequently plays rock music in his room before class starts. One day this spring in Fighting Disease: The Evolution and Operation of Human Medicines, a class aimed at the general student population rather than specialists, he focused on morphine-related painkillers and how they were developed.

Smith kept his students engaged with rapid-fire activity and humorous comments. Halfway through the class, he had already conducted several demonstrations, written and drawn on the blackboard, shown plastic molecule models, asked the students questions, used both a laser and a wooden pointer, gotten the students to laugh several times, and shown a picture of his two young daughters.

To demonstrate a point about crystals, he poured a liquid solution of sodium acetate, which quickly crystallized onto an overhead projector, and he kept on pouring as it began to form a pillar. “This is crystallizing as fast as I can pour it,” he said. “You can imagine whatever you want of that, but I call it art.”

For a change of pace in mid-class, Smith did some teaching on temperature scales. “Any of you heard of Kelvin?” he asked. “Kelvin is the absolute zero scale.”

Liquid nitrogen, he wrote on the board, is minus-196 degrees Celsius, minus- 321 Fahrenheit – “that’s cold” – and 77 degrees Kelvin. “What does that mean for us? It means that we can freeze stuff.”

Putting goggles on, Smith reached into a container of liquid nitrogen with tongs and pulled out a tennis ball, which he shattered by throwing against the wall. Next he took out a rotten orange, which shattered immediately against the floor. His students roared with delight and one student gave him a script from a theater class to freeze.

Before long it was back to the original topic of the day, the chemistry of morphine and related painkillers.

After class, Smith said his philosophy is to try to engage the students. “I try a lot of different things. Students are different, they learn differently, they enjoy different things, they respond to different things. But in the end, I want them to learn chemistry.”

Dan Suess ’07, a chemistry major who has taken two classes with Smith, described his teacher as enthusiastic and energetic: “I consider Professor Smith to be a genuine teacher rather than a lecturer.

“He is remarkably clear and precise in his explanations. He engages the students even in a large lecture course – asking questions, posing hypotheticals, and cracking jokes,” Suess said. “In lab, he is patient and treats each experiment as if it is new research.”

Teaching is Like Cooking

Whether the professor is firing oranges or questions, the point is to get a response out of students. History Professor Christopher Waters’ preferred teaching method is discussion.

“One of the things I really like about teaching at Williams is classroom discussion,” he said. “Trying to elicit students’ thoughts and have other students respond to them is a little bit like being a chef, especially in a class where you’ve got 40 people and you’re stirring in various ingredients, hoping that you create a good stew out of it.”

On the day before spring break, students filled all of the seats in the classroom for his course Europe in the Twentieth Century. Never writing a note on the board, or even rising from his seat, Waters led a discussion the entire class period of The Nazi Seizure of Power, a case study of how the Nazis came to power in Northeim, a small town in Germany.

Waters at times indeed seemed like a chef, peppering the students with questions and seasoning their observations with his own perspective. At other times he seemed like a maitre d’hotel, pointing here or there to a student ready to contribute.

“How about this town? How representative is this town? It is really quite unique. What makes it maybe different from a lot of other towns?” he asked, speaking rapidly.

“I’d like to ask this: Where is Hitler in all of this?” Waters said later, listening to several student answers before offering his own view. “Hitler hovers in the background but is really not central to this story, where you have a local party which manipulates propaganda to meet local needs and to play on local fears and anxieties. Formal policy and the role of Hitler seem to be very distant.”

The Power of Listening

In German 202, Vienna, Professor Gail Newman sat at the head of a seminar table in Weston Hall. Speaking in German, she engaged eight students in conversation. Her focused attention on and interaction with the students did not seem to diminish during the entire 75-minute class.

“Sehr gut,” she frequently said. “Very good.” Newman showed a website about Vienna and at times played audio in German. Later, she and the students went over a reading assignment. Students responded to Newman and to each other throughout the class in German.

Later Newman said, “I guess if I were to articulate a philosophy of teaching it has to do with a lot of listening, listening to students in a way and talking with students in a way that helps them listen to themselves and to each other.”

She added, “My general philosophy has to do with my listening very attentively and critically with an eye toward pushing the students to hinterfragen as we say in German – it’s a great word – to ‘ask behind’ what they are thinking.”

In teaching a foreign language, Newman helps the students listen to themselves. She doesn’t interrupt students to correct mistakes while they’re speaking German. “If they’re going along and there are grammar mistakes, I don’t interrupt the flow of their sentences,” she said. “I let them say what they’re saying, and then I speak back to them in such a way that the correct way of saying it is clear, with the idea that they then hear it and think about their own language.”

After years teaching students at different linguistic levels, Newman has become very self-aware of her own speech. She automatically shifts her discourse, depending on whom she is talking to and how complex the information she is trying to convey. This is true even when she teaches in English.

The challenge, which she greatly enjoys, is not only to say something clearly. “I’m thinking all the time about how I’m saying it and who I’m saying it to. That is absolutely crucial.”

Students Talking to Students

One day in March, the students in Feminist Approaches to Religion were discussing the role of women in Islam. Sitting among them like a classmate, Religion Professor Denise Buell looked around constantly for students ready to contribute. And they did. If she was not asking questions, she was making observations on the students’ comments or on the articles they had read.

“I try to let the discussion sort of take the directions it will, pausing to summarize or intervene if I think it’s necessary, but trying to not just make it a tennis match between myself and an individual student,” she said after class. “I encourage them to talk to each other.”

In this course in particular, Buell wanted to suggest that there are multiple valid ways to approach the material.

“I think that one of the most fundamental goals I have is to foster critical thinking,” Buell said. “Sometimes we leave with more questions than we started, and I think that’s OK as long as there’s an arc across the entire semester where students have a sense that they’re gaining new tools, new ways of thinking, new questions, so by the end of the term they have a sense of having learned a lot, even if it’s just a new way of seeing the world.”

Ward Schaefer ’06 signed up for Feminist Approaches to Religion because of Buell’s reputation as a great teacher.

“Perhaps the most impressive thing about Professor Buell’s teaching is the way that she manages to control and organize the discussion, while still seeming very hands-off,” he said. “She’ll periodically step into our discussions to summarize and reframe our arguments and maybe offer a new question or two, but the focus is always on what the students are saying. As a result, the discussion hardly ever feels like a group of students answering their teacher; it’s always a conversation.”

Elana Boehm ’06, a religion major who took three courses with Buell, said Buell’s “enthusiasm is contagious and makes me look forward to every class. The readings are carefully chosen so that class discussions can evolve and end in a way that feels like we’ve really accomplished something during the session.”

Elegance of the Ideas

Professor of Physics Sarah Bolton, teaching Electromagnetism and The Physics of Matter, set a crisp pace, moving from rapidly writing notes on the blackboard to conducting a brief demonstration with electricity and magnets. Then she went back to the blackboard. She spoke in precise language, with occasional subject-related asides.

About 40 students sat quietly in the large amphitheater-style classroom in the Physics building. Many were taking the course to prepare for medical school.

At various points, facing her students, Bolton put her right arm and hand against the blackboard to demonstrate relationships between current flow, a magnetic field, and other forces. She was using what is known in physics as the “Right Hand Rule.” In the process, she got white chalk on her pants but didn’t notice and none of the students seemed to notice, or care.

“And remember, I had some hints for how to do this without actually disconnecting any of your joints or straining anything,” she quipped.

Bolton steadily filled panels on the 30-foot-high blackboard, pushing them up, out of the way – but still visible – and immediately starting on a new panel.

“I think it’s easy for professors to underestimate the value of being really clear on the board, because you want to be exciting,” she said later. “So I practice my lectures on the board in my office in the hour before class to make sure that the layout is how I want it to be.”

In class, using a battery charger, she demonstrated how currents in two wires pushed the wires apart. Then she launched into a technical explanation of the effect on the blackboard.

Later in the day, Bolton quietly helped pairs of students from the same class in a physics lab as they studied how charges move in a magnetic field. She was focused on helping them prepare for the upcoming Medical College Admission Test.

What is her teaching philosophy? “I think physics is really beautiful, and I think that a lot of students get trained at some point in their lives to think that it’s very intimidating and very boring,” she said. “So I try pretty hard to take away both the intimidating and the boring part and try to replace it with some sense of what the elegance of the idea is and also some sense that all of these guys can do this – easily.”

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