December 2007 Issue
Head of the Class
From birds to politics to Shakespheare, the subjects covered in Ohio college classrooms are conveyed by teachers who are expert, enthusiastic and commited to their students.
Being a combination of authority figure, expert, fount of wisdom, entertainer and buddy is not an easy burden of any human to beat, but some teachers thrive under the weight of these combined roles.
Ohio Magazine is recognizing 139 exemplary teachers from universities and colleges within the state in its annual Excellence in Education section. Spend a moment with a few among the respected and the best.
Eyes on the Skies
The endeavors of Ohio Wesleyan University zoology professor Edward H. Burtt Jr. are decidedly for the birds, though not in any pejorative sense.
His instruction and avian work, in fact, have fostered a following — a flock of fans, so to speak — among peers and students on the Delaware campus, where “Jed” Burtt teaches introductory zoology for nonmajors, ornithology, tropical biology, island biology, scientific writing and honors tutorial. He also co-directs the university’s honors program.
Currently in his 31st year at Ohio Wesleyan, Burtt was chosen a few years ago by students to receive an award given annually to the top teacher on campus.
“I was very pleased to get it,” he says. “Teaching is something I put a lot of time and effort into.”
That teachers know their stuff, Burtt says, is essential. It’s no stretch to say that this teacher has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. Among his numerous writings are entries in the World Book Encyclopedia on blue jays, pigeons and quail. Burtt has published three books about birds and has held academic positions at Harvard, Ohio State University, the University of Utah and the University of Tennessee.
With a fellow faculty member, microbiologist Jann M. Ichida, Burtt holds patents for research using bacteria to break down bird feathers and poultry waste. A founder of the Ohio Ornithological Society, established in 2006, he is president-elect of the prestigious American Ornithologists Union, established in 1883.
All of that leads to a second characteristic of the influential pedagogue, according to Burtt’s Law of Teaching Dynamics: “You have to be enthusiastic,” he says.
Enthusiasm can manifest itself in many ways. The ambiance of a zoology class is set early in the semester when Burtt dresses in 19th-century clothing and reads to the students scientific reports presented in London 150 years ago by Charles Lyle, mentor to Charles Darwin.
Burtt often eschews the institutional to embrace the familial. He meets students in the informal setting of their dormitories to hold pre-test review sessions. Students in his honors tutorial class, meanwhile, use the Burtt home, which rests on land nudging the Delaware Wildlife Area, as a hands-on laboratory. In a typical morning-long class, the professor provides breakfast and the students watch birds gathering at the feeders, sometimes catching them. Their professor then provides lunch and facilitates discussion.
The professor describes such out-of-class interaction as meeting students “on their grounds.” At the same time, students cover quite a bit of ground in some of Burtt’s classes.
Members of the ornithology class sign on for Sunday bird-watching trips during which they travel to hot spots as far away as Lake Erie. The first class ends with pizza and a video game designed to introduce bird identities. In the spring, the group spends camping and viewing time at Crane Creek State Park, east of Toledo, where they glimpse warblers and other migrants.
The field trip associated with the island biology class is world class: Students travel with Burtt to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Select students also routinely accompany Burtt to professional gatherings where they present research findings.
Such procedure and technique have elicited a share of five-star reviews, including one effusive student’s two-word exclamation quoted in a university newsletter: “Jed rocks!”
Lessons from the Bard
After having taken one of his Shakespeare classes, Youngstown State University students most often come to praise — and definitely not to bury — Timothy Francisco, an assistant professor of English who earned the school’s Distinguished Professorship Award for Teaching during the 2006-07 academic year. “His student evaluations commend him for his passion and enthusiasm in his engagement and knowledge of the subject and for connecting students to the challenging literary texts,” says Ikram Khawaja, YSU’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs.
A journalist in an earlier life who maintains both academic and real-world links to that communicative craft, Francisco seeks to convey the astounding insight and language that have made Shakespeare worth continual examination for 500 years, while at the same time stripping away what he refers to as Bardolatry. The playwright and poet’s words and stories, Francisco says, must be approached as artifacts of their time and place to better understand how they can be adapted by students to this time and place.
One approach, he says, is to point out quickly that Shakespeare and his Globe Theatre were not reverentially seen by contemporaries and audiences as the repositories of hallowed art that they often are today.
“One of the really important things I try to get people to understand is that he is a product of his culture,” Francisco says. “These were performers. It was the form of popular entertainment. Shakespeare was writing for audiences of very different backgrounds and very different education levels.”
By eliminating the intellectual patina, students are better able to understand Shakespeare as actor, as entrepreneur, as wit, as social climber, as a product of his class background, as a fellow human being. In various ways, Francisco points out, the Bard’s struggles mirror those of many YSU students in that they, too, are products of their time and circumstance.
“Many are first-generation college students. Many are older, displaced workers. That makes for an exciting dynamic for discussions,” he says.
Those discussions are meant to facilitate critical thinking, which in Francisco’s view is one of the primary “imperatives” of a university education. “We are supposed to be training engaged citizens,” he says.
The level of engagement demanded manifests itself in class exercises. For example, Francisco sometimes asks students to boil down an entire act of a Shakespeare play into 20 words. Such conciseness requires mastery of material and meaning.
To demonstrate how the interpretation of a Shakespeare play might differ between an Elizabethan audience and a contemporary one, Francisco introduces nonliterary period documents. In the study of “The Merchant of Venice,” for example, he exposes students to writings from the period about religion and usury, highlighting how the views on those issues have changed between, say, 1592 and 2007.
“The idea,” Francisco says, “is to move students from descriptive thinking to conceptual thinking.”
A faculty member since 2003, Francisco has worked to bring Shakespeare and literature not only to students but also to the Youngstown community. He has lectured at the public library and has helped bring in acting troupes to stage performances open to the public.
Combining his past life as a journalist with his present one as a scholar, Francisco leads students on field studies that can end up as expository writings. For instance, a plan is in the works for students to spend time in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they can study that city’s response to the erosion of its manufacturing base. Research on hometown Youngstown’s response to the same circumstance will allow students to make comparisons based on observed successes and failures in a number of areas.
What Francisco is hoping for his students is a life of “sustained engagement beyond the classroom,” he says. “I know it sounds a little hokey, but I believe it.”
Donna Schlagheck, chairwoman of the political science department at Wright State University, can count students among devotees, and peers among admirers on the Dayton campus. Charles S. Taylor, dean of the liberal arts college and Schlagheck’s boss, calls her “a remarkable, exemplary colleague” and an “extraordinary teacher” who “has won every teaching award at WSU.”
Back in 1986, Wright State opened its arms to a fledgling faculty member whose interests and expertise lay in U.S. politics and international relations, a juxtaposition of disciplines not considered all that connected in the academic orthodoxy of the day. That convention has changed as a result of the rise of terrorism, turmoil in the Middle East and a host of other factors outside that border that influence domestic politics and elections.
“That divide has so clearly come down in the last 25 years,” Schlagheck says.
And while the trip has been circuitous and even outside the purview and experience of most Americans, students in Schlagheck’s classes are challenged to understand why what happens “over there” has become important here. “Never has there been a greater need for a critical-thinking, well-informed electorate,” she says.
Schlagheck’s teaching method rests on a Socratic approach that demands students draw inferences from questions they end up asking themselves as they connect facts to issues.
“The idea is to start a dialogue that I end up moderating,” she says. “The students figure things out on their own.”
Schlagheck requires preparation and research using conceptual screeds and texts along with urging students to consume news about what used to be termed “current events.” The idea is not to turn students necessarily into politicians or diplomats, although some of her students have moved in that direction. The plan is to create analytical citizens, which a working democracy, she says, requires in abundant supply. Thus, students, perhaps for the first time, are encouraged to engage in what Schlagheck terms “the consumption and scrutiny” of information that affects their lives. So encouraged and engaged, such students aren’t likely to return to a passive mode of living.
“It’s so infinitely rewarding when you know they’re going to do it for the rest of their lives,” she says.
As an adviser, Schlagheck is entrenched deeply in the Model United Nations program that encourages groups of students to take on real-world problems by adopting the perspective of nations other than their own and grappling with those dilemmas from an unfamiliar world view. Through the program, Wright State students regularly visit the United Nations, oftentimes meeting with the ambassador or other representative from their adopted country.
Such practical training has helped lead her former students into positions with the U.S. mission to the U.N., the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. While her students might respond in kind, Schlagheck pro-nounces her work with them to be a privilege.
“It’s a blessing. It’s a gift,” she says. “I’m grateful.”