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Inside the classrooms of six Boston College faculty
At 8:15 one wednesday morning last January, most of the 40 students in G. Peter Wilson’s 8:30 Financial Accounting class were already present. Wilson waited a minute or two longer, surveyed the Fulton Hall lecture room occupied mostly by freshmen in the Carroll School of Management, and said: “Let’s do it.” All heads turned toward a bingo cage on a wooden bench at the front of the room. The professor gave the toy a spin and yanked out a numbered yellow ball—indicating the study group that would report on its research momentarily. Then he rolled a red dice. “And the lucky number is two,” he announced, signaling the student who would deliver the group’s brief presentation. In the back of the room a young man pumped his fist and exclaimed, “Yes!”
As the room filled again with chatter, Wilson, who holds the Joseph L. Sweeney Chair of Accounting, strode to the back row to quietly dispense words of advice and encouragement to the student, Alexander Hevia ’13, a history major from the College of Arts and Sciences. After the coaching, Hevia huddled with members of his team and flipped through their written assignment on the topic of the day, which was corporate balance sheets and how they are analyzed across industries. At 8:30, he stepped to the front of the room with a single sheet of sparse notes and, achieving a conversational tone, ranged lucidly across the balance sheets of companies such as Google, Jet Blue, and Gap. Having heard enough after a few minutes, Wilson motioned to the class. “What do you think?” he asked and led a round of applause.
Peter Wilson believes (as do many education researchers) that collaborative activity fosters learning. It is for this reason that he assigns students to groups at the start of a semester. But he also knows that when a crew of five divvies up the work each student will dig deeply into roughly 20 percent of the material. “I want them to teach each other before they come back to class,” he says. And so he instituted the regime of the bingo cage and the dice, to spur his students to learn the full assignment. The students arrive early because of his habit of drawing the first numbers 10 minutes before class begins, which he does to get a head start. (There are usually two or three more drawings on the same day, without time for preparation.) The opportunity of a little advance warning, however, scarcely explains Hevia’s reaction to “winning.” “I knew the stuff. I had to know the stuff,” the student from Miami said later. “And I guess I felt happy I could show it.”
This practice of random selection was repeated frequently throughout the semester, whenever group assignments were due. “Fifty percent of teaching is incentives,” Wilson said after one class meeting. “If you can get students to prepare, they’ll want to participate.” The other half, Wilson believes, is intrinsic motivation. He speaks of sharing his lifelong passion for his subject as the key to nurturing self-motivation. An example of his success is Michelle Mittelsteadt, MBA’01, who began her studies at the Carroll School, she says, not expecting to actually like accounting. She was a Ph.D. chemist, intent on becoming a research-and-development manager. Then, in her first semester, in the fall of 1999, she enrolled in Wilson’s required class. “He made it exciting,” she recalls. “It totally changed what I wanted to do.” Today she’s a financial analyst at Ernst & Young in Boston.
At most schools, at most levels of education, you will find master teachers, as they are sometimes called—those with a special flair for drawing students into their subject and stimulating a desire to learn. Boston College Magazine invited the deans of six of the University’s schools to identify persons of such consequence among their faculties. The list was trimmed with other factors in mind, such as allowing for a range of lecture styles and classroom settings, with the result that six teachers were selected—one from each school—who may help turn light on what it means to teach exceedingly well at a contemporary university in the Jesuit liberal arts tradition.
The six are Peter Wilson of the Carroll School, Judith Shindul-Rothschild of the Connell School of Nursing, Diana C. Pullin of the Lynch School of Education, Mary Joe Hughes of the Arts and Sciences Honors Program, James R. Repetti of the Law School, and Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, of the School of Theology and Ministry. They opened their classroom doors to journalistic coverage and sat for interviews on the teaching life over the 2010–11 academic year.
At a time when nearly everyone seems to have a hard-held opinion on teacher performance in grades K through 12 (often tied to student standardized-test scores), there is surprisingly little attention paid to the qualities of an exceptional teacher at the higher levels of education, especially at major research universities, where other priorities such as contributions to a scholarly community and campus intellectual life must be weighed. There have been, to be sure, numbers-based efforts to gauge the overall effectiveness of a university education, though far from all schools have subscribed to them. The largest of these, the National Survey of Student Engagement, tracks students’ (self-reported) involvement in “programs and activities” in and out of the classroom, asking questions, say, about the frequency of one-on-one discussions with professors. The Educational Testing Service began administering its outcome oriented Academic Profile test of “general education student learning” to students at participating U.S. colleges and universities in 1990; the current iteration, called the ETS Proficiency Profile, measures “critical thinking, reading, writing, and mathematics.” More recently, in January 2011, the Lumina Foundation for Education—a private organization with assets exceeding $1 billion dedicated to expanding the U.S. college-educated population—issued its framework for defining “quality in American higher education.” Called the Degree Qualifications Profile, it sets out benchmarks for student progress in “five basic areas of learning: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; intellectual skills; applied learning; and civic learning.” For the most part, these programs do not directly address the ways of good teaching. Nor, it’s possible to argue, does the State of Texas’s recent effort to gauge university faculty “productivity” by means of figures such as number-of-students-taught and external-research-funding. Certainly, an economist’s 2003 study showing that good-looking professors garner more favorable evaluations from students offers scant guidance.
Donald L. Hafner, a political scientist and vice-provost for undergraduate academic affairs at Boston College, suspects that answering the question of what qualifies as masterly teaching may in part come down to the Potter Stewart principle. This is the I-can’t-define-it-but-I-know it-when-I-see-it criterion put forward by the Supreme Court justice in his 1964 concurring opinion regarding illegal obscenity.
“There’s a tendency to suppose that highly effective teachers are flashy in the classroom, and that might well be” in many cases, says Hafner. “But flashiness alone won’t draw a student into repeatedly going back to the material and thinking about it in a deep way.” That’s the key, according to Hafner and many researchers who underscore the importance of what is known in the literature as “time on task,” or how often a student is drawn back to the subject matter. Getting students to think often about a subject “requires a kind of charisma, but not necessarily a flashy formal presentation,” Hafner says. With the possible exception of Wilson and his bingo props, none of the professors profiled in this article would come across to anyone as flashy. And Wilson, gray-haired, balding, and bespectacled, who teaches Financial Accounting with his wife, Caroline (she helps manage the class, but does not lecture), keeps the focus in class ever on students and the academic content. He is also quick to alter the dynamics of the classroom. At one point last May, during a meeting of Financial Accounting, the pace of student responses to his rapid-fire questions started to lag (Wilson had begun the class noting that the last group paper reached his email box at 4:59 a.m., a minute before deadline; some students were undoubtedly tired). So he told the class, “Okay, huddle up.” Whenever he feels the energy flagging, he explained in an interview later, he sends students back into their study groups to tackle the question at hand. “And you can see the energy come back and bubble up,” he said.
Students will point out—rightly—that teaching moments go beyond the classroom. Wilson, for instance, is known for a dogged pursuit of internships for his students; and most students interviewed said their respective professors had called or e-mailed them asking that they come in and talk, whether about a missed class, a disappointing grade, or some other academic matter. For the purposes of this article, however, it will be the challenges of the classroom that are front and center.
For Judith Shindul-Rothschild, associate professor in the Connell School of Nursing, the challenge is to engage students productively in material that is often disturbing. Her zone of expertise is mental health, and the topic of her Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Theory class for juniors, bright and early on a Monday morning in February, was major depression.
“You guys did a great job on the quiz last night during the Super Bowl—and nobody mentioned to me that it was during the Super Bowl,” Shindul-Rothschild said at the start of the three-hour lesson, chuckling along with the 35 students in the all-female class at the oversight. She routinely administers 60-minute online quizzes that cover the reading assignments and help students prepare for the three-hour, once-a-week class.
The professor’s tone changed quickly as she began enumerating the characteristics of major depression. People with this condition are not merely suffering from mood swings; and they are not psychotic, which involves delusional behavior, she explained. Long-term sadness or other negative feelings can render them unable to fulfill basic responsibilities, such as going to school or work or functioning as parents. Here, Shindul-Rothschild hammered at a point she would repeat more than once before the class was over, raising her voice suddenly each time and accenting almost every word: “You always have to ask [the patient]: Are you thinking of hurting yourself? And if the answer is yes, you have to go after the details.”
Shindul-Rothschild never sits. She walks around the room, though not precipitously, strolling the aisles and making eye contact with students. Her manner is as serious as the topics she takes up each week, such as trauma, abuse, and psychosis, all of which her students will encounter as nurses, regardless of specialty. She lets the students sit in silence as they absorb her questions—questions that might be too close for comfort, particularly when the subject turns to eating disorders, childhood grief, or the effects of anxiety and depression on families. Behind her is a large screen with PowerPoint slides tracking the lesson, but the technology is not center stage. The students already have their own copies of every slide in every presentation for the semester, contained in white binders that usually sit atop their desks.
At each turn in the class on depression, the nursing professor prompted her students to connect the research to their clinical assignments at Boston-area hospitals and to their future practice. She asked if anyone was doing clinical work in the oncology unit at Children’s Hospital, and five or six hands went up. “Do you ever see sad parents? Are they depressed?” A young woman answered that she saw a mother crying in the hallway the week before—but not in the room with her child. “Great example,” the teacher responded. “They fall apart in the hall, but they pull it together to care for their children.” This should not be confused with major depression, she pointed out.
Near the end of the class, Shindul-Rothschild gave the example of an older patient who asks a nurse: “Why should I live? Everyone has either died or abandoned me—what’s the point?” The professor put the question to the students: “What do you say to that person?”
There were no takers, and Shindul-Rothschild rephrased the question a few times. A student, pensively curling a strand of hair around her finger, began to say something and then stopped. By then, Shindul-Rothschild was speaking almost in a whisper, and yet she was heard clearly, in the silence of the Cushing Hall classroom. She stopped talking, and walked slowly across the room.
After a long minute, she told her students firmly: “Do something simple. You don’t have to answer the question about the meaning of life. But you have to convey to them that their life means everything to you at this moment.” Her voice became soft again. “Sit with them. Don’t leave them alone. Be a presence,” she advised. “That’s how you give patients meaning, give them hope.”
Two other times during this class, the pattern of questioning and quiet recurred—including when Shindul-Rothschild shared an experience from her practice as a young nurse in a psychiatric ward in Boston. She was caring for a college student who persuaded her and the other young nurses that he had turned a corner in his treatment and should be given a day pass to go shopping, which was granted. The patient walked out the door, went across the street, and jumped off a tall building.
In an interview later, Shindul-Rothschild explained those moments of stillness in the classroom. “I’m very cautious about breaking the silence,” she said. “I know that if they’re silent, it’s for a reason. It’s not because they don’t have the knowledge, but because it’s difficult to talk about.” She added, “And they’re reflecting.”
Outside of class, Shindul-Rothschild’s manner is much the same—warm and supportive, yet sober and intense. In her third-floor office in Cushing, she tells of how she decided to become a nurse. She was 15 years old and in a waiting room in a South Shore Massachusetts hospital when she heard a Code Blue emergency order announced for her father, who had suffered his third heart attack. She charged up to his room and, amid the chaos of resuscitation, began praying and crying. A nurse grabbed her, took her into a coat closet and held her, saying, “Your father is a strong man.” Her father survived (and lived to a ripe old age), and Shindul-Rothschild says she was so affected by the compassion and professionalism of the nursing team that she decided to apply, two years later, to the nursing school at Boston College, from which she graduated in 1975.
Her own experiences are never distant from class instruction. She’s quick to share hard lessons she’s learned and mistakes she’s made as a practitioner, and in an interview she spoke again of the young man who leaped to his death and of the signs he gave of his intentions that the young nurses should have read, such as handing off personal items to friends. “It gives me the chills to think about it, to this day,” she said, gazing out a window with a view of Alumni Stadium.
When asked about the aims of her courses, she tells of students who are able to marshal a wide range of skills and leverage a storehouse of knowledge, all in the service of “easing suffering and giving hope.” Her students need all the insight and inspiration they can muster before they enter locked psychiatric units during the clinical portions of their training. Calli Gilbride ’12, who took Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Theory last spring, explains what that’s like. “When you first walk into a clinical, it’s terrifying,” said the student from Wisconsin, before walking back her remark just a bit. “Well, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. Basically you can’t get out. You feel vulnerable.”
But, Gilbride adds, her fears were allayed somewhat by vivid recollections of Shindul-Rothschild’s lectures, including the professor’s constant message (as rendered by Gilbride), “They’re all people. They’re going to respond to your kindness.” The student recalls a patient, a young man with schizophrenia, who was withdrawn from everyone and initially unresponsive to her questions until she drew on another lesson repeatedly taught by Shindul-Rothschild: “You’ll never get anything out of such a person by just talking. You have to be creative,” as Gilbride relates. She played cards with the man, and after a couple of weeks, he began to smile and talk. According to Gilbride (who is intentionally vague due to confidentiality concerns), she learned details about his family situation that affected the plan for his discharge from the hospital.
Andy Boynton, dean of the Carroll School of Management, says that good teachers care about teaching, which may sound needlessly obvious until one considers other factors in play at a research university. Boynton says he feels compelled to inform prospective faculty members that if they’re looking for a felicitous place to carry out research and teach mainly as an afterthought, they’ve come knocking on the wrong door. “We want great teaching and great research, and we hire people to do both,” he stresses. When a scholar doesn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom, Boynton says, students generally figure this out “about five minutes into the first class of the semester.”
That said, the master teachers identified by the deans for this article tend to be accomplished researchers and scholars as well. In 2011 alone, Shindul-Rothschild, for instance, has had five papers published as articles in academic journals or chapters in books, on subjects ranging from community mental health nursing and substance abuse to schizophrenia, pharmacology, and collective bargaining in the nursing profession. Her articles can be found among the readings for one or more of her three classes this fall, including both the undergraduate and graduate Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Theory courses and Transition to Professional Nursing, the last core course taken by undergraduate nursing students. Currently she is investigating eating disorders—developing screening tools for school nurses to identify young men and women who may be at risk for anorexia or bulimia.
In 2009, the Lynch School’s Diana Pullin was one of 44 scholars to be named an American Educational Research Association Fellow, in recognition of her exceptional contributions to scholarship. As a lawyer, Pullin has argued many education-law cases in state and federal courts and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. As a researcher, she has focused on such areas as testing and the law, the rights of students, assessment of teacher performance, and bullying. “A few years ago, I hardly talked about bullying,” says Pullin, and now the problem is part of her education law class. Her research flows quickly into the classroom, she says: “It’s a constantly interactive process.”
Each semester, Pullin teaches Education Law and Public Policy to approximately 25 graduate students, usually in a Fulton Hall classroom. During sessions of this 4:30 to 6:50 p.m. class, she seems perpetually and pleasantly occupied with the thoughts put forward by her pupils. Typically, a third of the students are from the Law School. Most of the others come to Chestnut Hill after putting in workdays at elementary or secondary schools or area colleges, typically as administrators. Pullin addresses them all as practitioners who might be acting on behalf of students or school systems, now or in the not-too-distant future.
When an idea is broached by a student, she will ponder, smile, and walk slowly to the side of the room, legal pad in hand. It is a sly smile. What normally follows is a forward thrust into dialogue as Pullin challenges the speaker to peel back a layer of argument or dig deeper into the factual matter. Brushfires of constructive conversation tend to erupt in different sections of the room before she pulls the class back together. The group is engaged.
To start off a meeting of the class in late February, Pullin showed a YouTube video of student protestors at the University of California, Irvine, disrupting a public talk by the Israeli ambassador. The day’s focus was free speech, and Pullin’s students had prepared by reading Supreme Court decisions delineating the rights and limits to speech in schools.
“Neither students nor teachers leave their rights behind at the schoolhouse door,” Pullin told the class, whose members appeared to be mostly in their twenties and thirties. In the course of the discussion, one student declaimed that school districts have no right to limit free expression. After a sidewise, pondering look, Pullin pressed him to precisely define expression protected by the Constitution as distinct from speech that disrupts the school environment and is therefore unprotected. The words “black arm band” bubbled up from a wildcat conversation at the other end of the room, bearing on a 1969 court ruling in favor of high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, who wore the symbol of mourning in silent protest of the Vietnam War.
Catching that wave, Pullin scanned the room for clothing that might constitute political expression, and found her way to a young woman in the back row sporting an “FBI” cap. Unexpectedly, it stood for “Fire Bush Initiative,” explained the student, April Robinson, JD’11. Robinson was also wearing a Spelman College sweatshirt as a 2007 alumna of that historically African American women’s institution. Does the sweatshirt count as political expression? Pullin asked. “Yes,” said Robinson. “It shows I support black as well as white higher education.” A moment later, Pullin was challenging another outspoken member of the class to think harder about speech that may not be protectable under the high court’s standards.
In an interview near the end of the semester, Robinson remarked that she has rarely been in a class where there was such “continuous discourse” before, during, and after the lessons. “We linger when class is over,” she said, referring to threads of classroom discussion that get picked up afterward. “We walk in with our minds made up and our opinions formed. And we walk out with our eyebrows a little scuffled, thinking we have to go do some more research.”
Pullin says her manner in the classroom is notably different from what it was in the courtroom, where she could be, like any other good litigator, adversarial and argumentative. From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s she successfully argued a number of high-profile cases including Debra P. v. Turlington, in which a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that certain kinds of high-stakes testing in secondary schools could be discriminatory. She considers her teaching, begun at the Lynch School in 1982—she served as dean from 1987 to 1994—a natural outflow of her education-law practice, “seamlessly integrated with the rest of my work” (her practice now mostly involves advising other attorneys who go into court). But Pullin makes a conscious effort to avoid the courtroom style in class.
“You have to create a culture in which there is an ease of conversation about deeply fraught and intellectually challenging issues. And if I don’t look comfortable doing it, they won’t feel comfortable talking about it,” she says. Pullin gives students their say, but she dismisses what she calls an “anything-goes approach” in which all comments are considered adequate: “You can feel a certain way about X, but what’s an informed reflection on X?”
No small part of her goal is to bring students to a place where, as school administrators, they can make informed judgments about legal disputes that arise, and not retreat from a policy or practice simply because of a lawsuit threat. She emphasizes, “I want them to be able to say: ‘You could sue me, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do.'”
Mary Joe Hughes
In a ground-floor study lounge of the residence hall known as 110 St. Thomas More Road, Mary Joe Hughes meets with the 14 students in her sophomore honors seminar. It is early May, and the usual venue for the class, Gasson Hall, is temporarily swathed in scaffolding.
The topic of the seminar is as broad as it is unresolved: Western Cultural Tradition. The yearlong course is a grand tour of literary, philosophical, and social-science classics beginning in the Enlightenment with Immanuel Kant’s Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), extending through works by Shelley, Marx, Freud, and Dostoevsky, and ending at the dawn of modernism with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (published in stages and finally as a whole in 1902).
With her coiffed white hair, beaded necklaces, and long flowing scarves over wool jackets, Hughes always looks well put-together—professorial yet slightly bohemian. She began teaching in the honors program in 1979 (three years after earning her Ph.D. in history at Harvard), and has served as the program’s assistant director since 1987. Two words that often surface in student evaluations of her teaching are “passion” and “enthusiasm,” and Hughes conveyed both qualities at the start of class that morning.
“For some reason, I’m obsessed with this scene. I think it’s one of the great scenes of Western literature,” she said a little excitedly to her sophomores, using her hands to accent key words. The scene was from Heart of Darkness—the one where a physician, “an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat,” measures the skull of the main character, who is preparing for a journey to Africa. The doctor explains that he always does this, out of scientific interest, when examining someone bound for the Dark Continent. Asked if he repeats the head measurement after travelers return, the physician smiles cryptically. “Oh, I never see them,” he says, and adds, “Moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.”
Crowded with her students around a rectangular table, with a view of white-flowering Magnolia stellata out expansive windows on two sides, Hughes tossed out the first question: “What do you think?” In her classes she makes a point of starting off with easy, open-ended queries, to get the conversation going. Soon enough, professor and students began the harder, collaborative work of interpretation, probing Conrad’s critique of Western values as fixated on measurement and quantification.
In true liberal arts fashion, Hughes invited the students to bring in perspectives from other classes, and evidently she knew the other classes they were taking. She looked expectantly at a young man wearing a Red Sox cap, and he leveraged a lesson from his history course, making the connection that Conrad’s doctor is like Robert McNamara, the Vietnam War–era defense secretary who purportedly ignored any realities of the war that were not reducible to hard data. Other students chimed in with analogies from other disciplines, including psychology (a reference to the quest to measure personality through Myers-Brigg questionnaires), biology (drawing a link between evolution and Conrad’s descriptions of supposedly primitive practices), and economics (an observation about how an economy can be awful but still not meet the technical definition of a recession). Hughes seemed pleased with the excursuses but moved to cut off that thread of conversation—”I think we’ve established that Conrad is talking about measuring the unmeasurable.”
After plowing further through the last stretch of the novel (this was the third and final meeting devoted to Heart of Darkness), the time came for Hughes to go to the whiteboard and encapsulate the understandings gleaned from it. These issued forth from the students, who were nudged ever so slightly by Hughes toward essential themes and “truths” claimed by the author, including the darkness of human nature, the blurred lines between civilization and savagery, and the hollowness at the center of humanity. A couple of students alluded to Conrad’s feeling that looks deceive, and Hughes scrawled the word “appearances.”
“It’s a delicate balance,” she said after class. “You want to make sure they’re understanding certain things.” But, she continued, you also want to disabuse them of the notion that there’s “just one way to interpret the text and it’s the teacher’s way, and she’s not telling them.” That’s why Hughes goes to the board and allows the dialogue to engender a surfeit of interpretations, some less essential than others. “It may seem like a mess,” she says, “but they’re making the ideas concrete, and they’re building on each other’s interpretations. They’re seeing that you can always go deeper into the text.”
Interviewed in her office in Carney some time later, questions about her teaching style met, at first, with a shrug of the shoulders. “I think you have to be yourself,” she responded. “You can’t play a role you don’t believe. I’ve always been a little suspicious of showmanship in the classroom.” This, however, does not mean assuming exactly the same role in every seminar conversation. Hughes says her intention is to “disappear as much as possible” into the dialogue, but she is typically more able to do that with juniors who take her higher-level seminars—20th Century and the Tradition, for instance. During a meeting of this class addressing Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist ethics, the students carried much of the conversation forward on their own, with Hughes going to the board at key moments to clarify questions, define terms, and jot down a word or phrase in French. She occasionally remarked “good point” or “not quite right.”
This was not always her style. Hughes recalls that during her early years at Boston College she was “much more controlling” during the discussions, but through those exchanges and her glimpses into what students can gain from deep interaction with one another in the classroom, she came to feel that part of her purpose as a teacher was to simply “not get in the way of them learning to think,” as she puts it. “I’m not loosey-goosey now,” she adds with a smile. “I want them to grapple with critical questions about the text. Beyond that, I let them wander from one topic to another, and I bring them back if they go off the rails.”
Brittany Bachant ’13, a math major from central Massachusetts who was part of the Western Cultural Tradition seminar last spring, notes that she had read Heart of Darkness in high school and came away with the understanding that it’s about the evils of European colonialism (an accepted if incomplete interpretation) and little else. That wasn’t enough to grab her interest. But she said that, in the seminar, “I was struck by the beauty of the writing and the many different ways of interpreting the text. Professor Hughes just brought all that out for me.”
Bachant, who contributed several comments during the Conrad discussion, including one about the author’s foreshadowing of environmental destruction (in the European settlers who ravaged African land), said she had always been quiet in class—until setting foot in Hughes’s seminar. “From day one, she made everyone feel at home and able to participate. I’m pretty sure every single person in the class spoke up every time we met,” Bachant said.
Eight years ago, Boston College published its “Pocket Guide to Jesuit Education,” a 10-page brochure that describes the process of being educated in the Jesuit tradition—of acquiring habits of attentiveness and intellectual reflection and positive action. A strong theme of the guide is education of “the whole person”: the idea that an individual can’t be viewed as whole if he or she lacks “an educated solidarity with other human beings, in their hopes and fears and especially in their needs.”
This sentiment is not typically associated with the pressure cooker known as law school. The stereotype of a law professor is the imperious Charles W. Kingsfield, the character played by John Houseman in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, which accurately portrayed a version of the Socratic method that blends instruction and intimidation.
Teaching his Federal Income Tax of Individuals class at Boston College Law School on a Monday morning in March, James Repetti is, his dark blue suit notwithstanding, the anti-Kingsfield. A hard-nosed scholar to be sure, he has coauthored many volumes and articles with titles such as Partnership Income Taxation (2011), Introduction to United States International Taxation (2005), and “Textualism and Tax Shelters” (2004). But with his soothing voice and kindly deportment the holder of the William J. Kenealy, SJ, chair manages to exert a calm influence over a lecture room packed with five dozen second-year law students. “It’s about creating an environment where they’ll feel comfortable, empowered, self-confident,” Repetti, a 1980 Boston College Law graduate, said immediately after class in his office. “You’re teaching the whole person intellectually, but you’re also building character. I hope that by seeing me treat them respectfully they’ll go on to treat others the same way. So instead of a plague of lawyers on earth, we’ll have some positive benefits,” he said with a laugh, as though he were putting in a tall order.
At the same time, Repetti, who was a running back (for Harvard) in the early 1970s and is built like one, does not let up as he impels his students through the arcane ways and byways of tax-law analysis. To “keep things moving” in the hour-long sessions of Socratic give-and-take three days a week, he says, he appoints in advance what he likes to call “co-counsels” for each meeting, two or three students he will call upon frequently, especially when the answers are slow in coming from others. The co-counsels are expected to be ready.
Repetti’s approach to what can be mind-numbingly detailed tax case studies often includes the spirited hypothetical. During a session early in the spring, the topic in his class was prizes and scholarships, and Repetti called up scenarios such as winning a football scholarship to Boston College, collecting the Nobel Peace Prize, and walking off Wheel of Fortune with an all-expenses-paid trip to New Jersey. Each example carried a different ramification for legal argument and at least one exception to the taxation rule.
At a few turns in the lecture, Repetti paused briefly to ask the students, “Is everyone comfortable with that?” He mostly stood at the podium but dipped several times to his left or right, leaning over as though looking for something in the rows. After class, he explained that he was maneuvering to make eye contact around the walls of open laptops on desks, searching for confused looks.
Repetti gives notice that his exams will include questions about made-up cases, which will demand a knowledge deeper than rote memorization of lecture notes and readings. He says that he aims for his courses to embody a teaching philosophy borrowed from the late Daniel Degnan, SJ, a law professor with whom he crossed paths at Boston College in the late 1980s. “Love your students to death, work your students to death,” Degnan had advised the young law professor. In the Jesuit tradition of education, as the “Pocket Guide” notes, these commandments are mutually inclusive: Love, which must be entwined with communication, is epitomized in action.
At the School of Theology and Ministry in a cupola-topped building on the Brighton Campus, Daniel Harrington, SJ, also practices what he calls “old-style Jesuit teaching,” a pedagogy he first learned as a student at Boston College High School more than 55 years ago. “It’s an orderly and engaged style,” says the professor of New Testament studies. “Tell the students what you’re going to do. Do it. And tell them you just did it.”
Harrington is a preeminent Catholic biblical authority, one of an elite group of researchers who, by their translations and commentaries, helped puzzle out the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947. The title of a relevant volume coauthored by Harrington in 2000 would be largely indecipherable to a generally intelligent reader—Qumran Cave 4: XXIV: 4QInstruction (Sapiential Texts), Part 2 (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert). The discussions in the 632-page book, published by Oxford University Press and selling on Amazon for the discounted price of $255.50, are technical. Harrington, however, also writes popular books on scriptural subjects, including one published this year, Meeting St. John Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message. In the classroom, his delivery is colloquial, a style he attributes partly to the fact that he’s a preacher as well as a teacher and delivers homilies every Sunday at local parishes. “That’s been a great discipline for me. It’s helped me enormously in my writing and teaching,” he says.
Redacting a Dead Sea Scroll fragment in his Wisdom Literature lecture class last fall, one that speaks metaphorically of “seductresses,” Harrington quipped to his students, “Only Dr. Freud perhaps can explain all these things, but it is what it is.” During an Apocalyptic Literature class in the spring, the avuncular Jesuit offered three questions that memorably summed up that biblical tradition: “Who’s in charge? Why is there evil in the world? And what time is it?”
Harrington, however, is not particularly animated in class. There wouldn’t be much call for that. When he is dissecting a scriptural passage with his students, whether in a seminar or in a 50-student lecture class, all heads are down, all eyes on the text. The interpretations require frequent digressions—into history, archeology, ancient languages—and the students look up only when Harrington puts words on the chalkboard, usually in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. No one is more engrossed in the textual material than the man at the front of the room. “I don’t try to put on a show, because I can’t,” Harrington says matter-of-factly in an interview. “I try to initiate students into the wonderful world of the text.”
At the close of a three-hour lesson on the Dead Sea Scrolls just before the Thanksgiving break, the students rose from their seats and, rather than heading toward the door, gave their professor a long round of applause. Asked about this later, Harrington said they were demonstrating the allure of the subject matter. His students are less quick to separate the scholar from the scholarship.
“This is why I took the class with him,” says Jennifer Moakler, a first-year master’s student, referring to Harrington’s scholarly accomplishments. “He brings all of that research to us, into the class.” Moakler, who also took the Apocalyptic Literature class in the spring and would like to work in a parish or diocese as a liturgy director, adds that the material itself may at times seem dry, “but he makes you see why it matters and how it all works. With Fr. Harrington, you really feel you’re part of a larger intellectual community.” That, she says, is why she joined in the applause.
The six faculty members profiled here have all received honors for their teaching—as have many other professors not named in this article. Nominated by his students, Peter Wilson, who has taught at Boston College since coming from MIT in 1997, has twice in the last three years received the Teaching with New Media Award for innovations in delivering course content (innovations much advanced by Caroline Wilson, he would be first to note). Connell School seniors bestowed on Judith Shindul-Rothschild a 2011 Award for Outstanding Teaching and Mentorship. Mary Hughes was honored with the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award at Boston College in 1990 and was invited by students to deliver a so-called Last Lecture in 2009. (The title alludes to the lecture’s purpose of imparting big ideas, not a speaker’s impending departure.) Diana Pullin received the University’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 2004. And in 1999 law students elected James Repetti the first professor to receive their school’s award for teaching excellence. As for Daniel Harrington, after publishing more than 40 books and teaching at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology for close to 40 years and at Boston College for one year, he was given an honorary degree by this University in 2009.
When pressed to explain his teaching techniques, Harrington speaks generally of a constant passion and enthusiasm yoked to the subject matter. “It’s nothing technical,” he says. “I just love this stuff. I want to keep learning about it. And I want to help people understand it better.”
Asked in his turn, Peter Wilson, the buoyant number-cruncher, describes an empirically elusive goal, that of encouraging a larger sense of meaning and purpose in his students. Wilson’s final two Financial Accounting meetings of the semester are always devoted to reflection upon lessons learned. (And, yes, he draws numbers to pick the student presenters.) A few times during the penultimate session last spring, he told the students in these and other words, “It’s really not about accounting.” In those instances, the lesson was apt to be about collaborative work, or the underrated value of making mistakes and then thinking through them, or lifelong learning. These are the lessons, it seems, that good teachers know.
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