Friday, August 14, 2015

What the Best College Teachers Do , by Ken Bain

What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard, 2004) by Ken Bain argues that effective teaching should be defined by the learning it enables.  That is, the focus in determining whether someone teaches well, or in deciding whether a particular teaching strategy works, should fall on how well students are learning. Bain focuses on a group of teachers widely recognized as highly effective, describing their teaching methods and habits and especially their ways of interacting with students.  Covering everything from body language to class assignments to group discussions to academic standards, Bain attempts to show how these teachers have succeeded in bringing about significant learning among their students. 
I read this book partially on the recommendation of colleagues, partially because Bain visited UGA last year and I had the chance to have lunch with him and other faculty, and partially, especially, because I wanted ideas and suggestions that might strengthen my teaching this fall term.  As a source of ideas and suggestions for improving teaching, this book is partially successful.  It is not a teaching “how to” book, but it covers through the teachers it highlights a number of different approaches that I might employ.  As an argument for a teaching philosophy that is student-centered and that defines effective teaching on the basis of what students learn, the book is highly successful.  There are points with which I don’t agree.  Sometimes I think Bain is a bit too optimistic, but in general he forcefully articulates what teaching effectiveness should mean: he contends that what students experience in the classroom matters, that their satisfaction with the course is important, that teaching is not merely presenting a body of knowledge but is more importantly a process of engaging students with that body of knowledge.
A number of the teachers Bain highlights stress to their students early in the course, often on the first day of class, that they must make a commitment to the class: “Even without any formal and public ceremonies of commitment, highly effective teachers approach each class as if they expect students to listen, think, and respond.  That expectation appears in scores of little habits: eye contact they make, the enthusiasm in their voice, the willingness to call on students.” (p. 113).  I especially liked his attitude towards grading.  We should not be so concerned, he argues, with whether the grades in a particular class are too high or low, but with how well students in that class have learned.  (Obviously, students are going to be concerned about low grades).  Measuring student learning is not so easy.  Grades do mean something, however, and I don’t think we can explain away a class in which all students receive high grades by arguing that all the students learned equally well.  In my own classes, the best students generally receive the best grades, not because they regurgitate my lectures and the material of the course, but because they have absorbed and analyzed and integrated that knowledge into their thinking and are able to reflect what they have learned in effective writing and in class discussions.  There are exceptions of course, and I can recall students who were deeply engaged with a course in which they received B or C grades because they couldn’t articulate what they had learned—they were poor writers, for instance.  In an English class (in any class, for that matter) is it wrong to fault poor writers?.
What the Best College Teachers Do provided me with ideas that I’ll try in my class this fall.  Most importantly, it reified an attitude towards teaching and towards students that I subscribe to: that teaching should be student centered, and that such teaching does not diminish the rigor or the quality of the course.

One caveat: the book tends to discuss teachers who for the most part teach in fields other than the humanities. Still, humanist teachers can find much of value in the book.

Friday, August 07, 2015


I watched Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz) Thursday evening at the local arts cinema, Athens CinĂ©.  It was the final film in the summer film series.  The showing was a sell out—every seat was filled, and almost everyone in the audience had seen the film multiple times.  As famous scenes and lines came along, you could feel—sense, hear, see—ripples of emotion and reaction run through the audience.  Some people mouthed famous lines of dialogue as they were spoken.  Sustained applause accompanied the closing credits.  This is the way to see a famous film.

Of the many reasons for the success of this film, the screenplay, based on an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” has to rank foremost among them.  Peppered with humor and irony and sarcasm, moments of repartee and romance, the script animates the film.  So too does the setting—Casablanca, a Hollywood set, of course.  Casablanca is where desperate people go hoping to buy passage out of Northern Africa and Europe, where corruption is so rife that everyone openly jokes about it.  The lead actors Bogart and Bergman are perfect—for the roles they play and the words they say.  Bogart plays to type here, the embittered and wounded lover, supporter of lost causes, pretending to care only for his own welfare.  Bergman is wonderful and beautiful.  The secondary characters, played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Dooley Wilson, and others, are fully alive.  (I had forgotten that Lorre’s character disappeared so early in the film). Rains and Greenstreet play charmingly corrupt figures in this film.

The Telegraph, 
As is the case with many great films, each time I see this one I find something different in it. This time I noticed the lack of agency in Bergman’s character Ilse Lund.  (I should have noticed this before—it’s fairly striking). She’s basically a beautiful wife and lover—an object rather than an agent.  She’s the puppet not only of the socially defined roles available to a young woman in 1942, but also of the political situation of the times—World War II—men and situations make decisions for her, or force them on her—she’s married to the leader of the Resistance movement, Victor Laszlo, on whom the survival of Europe and America may depend. She can’t choose to abandon him; she can’t make decisions that might imperil the Resistance effort.  When she is about to leave Paris with Rick as the Germans approach, she learns that Victor is alive (she had thought him dead), and she abandons Rick to be with him.  She has to be the dutiful wife.  In Casablanca, reunited briefly with Rick, she is overpowered by her love for him to the point that she tells him she “can’t think.” Rick says that he’ll do the thinking for her—and then he too succumbs to the force of history.  Not surprisingly, it’s Rick—the strong male, swayed by a higher cause—who has to make the difficult decision, not Ilse, afflicted with love and passion, who “can’t think.”  But if all we can do is deconstruct this film on the basis of gender stereotypes and our contemporary instant in time, we deny ourselves the experience of the film.  Casablanca is what it is—we have to give ourselves up to it, see it as a product of the historical moment, enjoy its dramatic force.

Everything is at issue here—the survival of individuals, the outcome of the war, the battle of good and evil.  In Casablanca, the war is writ large.  In a romance we want lovers to remain together, to find happiness and satisfaction.  This film reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all and that sometimes other factors are more important.  As Rick tells Ilse, “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.”

The “La Marseilles” scene is one of my favorite moments in film.