Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why I Don’t Use the Socratic Method
With the start of the new law school semester looming tomorrow, I thought it was time to revisit a favorite issue. From my Rutter Award for Teaching Excellence speech last spring:

When I joined the Illinois faculty 20 years ago, I began a long struggle with the problem of pedagogy. Like a lot of newly minted law professors of a certain age, I thought Professor Kingsfield was the standard to which I had to aspire.

Good for you.

It's law, not archaeology, but those of you who have sat through 4-16 years of a university education can relate. Well, especially grad school. I wasn't particularly enamored of the Paper Chase movie or series, but I watched it a few times prior to entering grad school and kinda thought that was what I was in for. Happily, that turned out (almost) not to be the case.

True, the first class I ever took in graduate school was taught by a Kingsfieldian prof -- I won't mention any names, but his initials are Robert C. Dunnell -- who really rather terrified first-years. He had a typical Indiana Jones-type office (albeit on the top floor of the building; he used his perks as department head well) chock full of boxes of artifacts and equipment. On his desk, where he greeted you sometime prior to the first day of class to let you know what you'd be in for, stood two items that most students could not take their eyes off of: a resin-encased rattlesnake head paperweight, and a fake (I hope) pile of dog poop.

He wasn't ('isn't' actually; he's still around) all that Kingsfieldish in many respects. Definitely not old-money eastern, more like hillbilly academic. But he was still incredibly serious about getting his ideas into our waifish brains and demanded an incredible amount of work. We were required to take his two theory courses our first two quarters (10 weeks, not semesters). FEAR. Especially when we had to do our presentations. Just sitting there reading our papers as he sat at the other end of the table. . . .doodling. You can imagine all sorts of young, green graduate students sitting there propounding on our given topic, all the while glancing over there wondering what could he be writing about?. We finally figured out that the more actual doodling he did -- and he could make some pretty complex doodles -- the better you were doing. OTOH, if he slowed down or, God forbid, stopped altogether and stared at you, you knew you were in trouble.

I had the great fortune (not) of getting both his second theory course and his lab course in my second quarter. Lawdy. Every nightmare that I ever had about grad school came true that quarter, especially the last two or three weeks when we had several finals, a couple of papers, a lab project, and Lord knows what else all due. I practically lived in the lab. Even on the weekends during that period, it was the same routine: Get up at 6 or so, go to the lab, classes, etc., come home and eat something for dinner, go back to the lab or the library until 11, fall into bed, lather, rinse, repeat. Our TA in the lab course even bought each of us a bottle of wine at the end, he felt so sorry for us (he'd been through the same grinder).

Still, he was one of the best profs I had, though to be honest his lecturing style left something to be desired. He was a ruthless editor; by the time you were done with him (or vice versa) you couldn't write a single sentence without analyzing every word and its position to determine its absolute necessity. A lot of people don't like his writing; it tends to be dense, but really it's just sparse, without much waste. You have to read closely, and if you do, you know exactly what he is saying. His writing, I think, lives up to my favorite quote which he pronounced: Ambiguity is a hedge against being wrong.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention one other aspect of our own Kingsfield. Every year around Christmastime he would "invite" (a formality; it was more or less required) all of his graduate students to his house for a party. Among the festivities, all the grad students would drink cheap beer ("Empty bottles filled up in the back yard by Rhinelander the horse") while he drank the good stuff. He also put out various snacks, including at least one plate of dog biscuits. Which would be bad enough, except that two people actually ate a couple.

I believe I may have the distinction of being the only first-year to ever fail to attend. I made it out, so I guess it didn't ruin me.