February 2, 1998
Volume 50, No. 19
Conversations on Teaching
Alternatives to lecture are invigorating for two professors
Harry Rusche and John Bugge, two professsors of English who have won the Emory Williams Teaching Award, recently engaged in a discussion about teaching, learning, students and changes at Emory. Rusche, who teaches Renaissance literature, has been at Emory since 1962; Bugge teaches medieval literature and has been here since 1968. Graduate English student Karen Poremski, who assists the Commission on Teaching, served as facilitator. The first of a two-part series on their conversation follows.
Karen Poremski: Both of you have made some significant changes in the way you teach. What kinds of changes did you make, and why?
Harry Rusche: Somewhere along the line-and I'm sure this is true with John-you realize that you're not teaching anyone anything; what you're doing is helping them learn. The real challenge is getting students to be interested. Whatever way you can do it, whether it's through lecture, collaborative groups or writing, that's what you need to do. I started experimenting 10 years ago with different things in the classroom, mainly because-and this is true-I was talking one day about Shakespeare and I realized I was not listening to myself, because I'd done it 40 times before. And I thought, if I'm not listening, how can I expect them to be listening? I realized I was really in a rut.
John Bugge: I've had the same experience in the course I'm now lecturing in, which is the early British survey. I'm getting tired of lecturing, but I know it has to be done in a lot of classes-75 students is just too large for discussion.
One day I let Dooley dismiss the class, so I put my lecture online on LearnLink. It created a sensation; the students loved it. That experience brought home to me how artificial, in this day and age, lecturing really is in some ways.
We should remember the lecture method was born in the medieval university and results simply from the fact that the students did not have a text because books were very expensive. So the lecturer (lecture comes from the verb "to read") would read his book-the only book-and students would write it down, taking dictation and occasionally marking glosses (comments) along the way. It's a very primitive form of transference of knowledge, one we don't need to use anymore.
I'm in the habit now, in almost every course I teach, of having students write at least one short paper a week. It gives them a position to defend, to uphold-they have to take an intellectual stance on a text. Very often they come to a text I think I know very well from an angle I never would have thought of. It can be very illuminating.
Rusche: When you stop all that lecturing, it gives you time to do more writing in class and allow students to think. We all make the mistake of coming into class and asking, "Well, what do you think of Romeo and Juliet?" And the problem is they haven't thought a thing about it until that moment. When you give them five or 10 minutes to think about something, you get some pretty good comments. I would say that's how my class has changed the most-more writing in class, less lecturing and a lot more participation.
Bugge: Last spring in a Chaucer course I used LearnLink and had students submit a paper a week-usually an impression paper, sometimes a background paper on something about the 14th century.
The amount of information technology provides grows exponentially-if you add it up, a paper a week from 28 students in 14 weeks is plenty of papers! It obviated the need for each individual student to do that amount of research, which they never could have done, really. I had papers on the Black Death, on economic conditions in the 14th century, on chivalry and knighthood and medieval castles. This is the sort of information you'd like them all to know, but no one student could do all the work. It also helps to create a sense of community-even though it's an electronic community. In the old way of teaching, students related only to the teacher and not to each other very much. Now there is a much more complex network of relationships that I think is better.
Rusche: That's where e-mail has helped a lot too. I encourage my students to e-mail me. I tell them, "I may not answer you at 3 in the morning, but I will answer at 9 in the morning." And it's interesting that students are a little more casual in e-mail-there's a different dynamic than in the office setting.
Bugge: It proves the point that you need to get out of the classroom to enliven the dialogue.
Next week: Grading teachers and students