Expanding Minds and Hearts at Rhodes

By Daney Daniel Kepple


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Expanding Minds and Hearts at Rhodes

Picture this: 20 students in a Frazier Jelke classroom are staring fixedly at a large screen. They represent all four class years, both genders and several ethnicities. In fact, the main thing they have in common is that not one of them is a science major.

The tension in the room is palpable. The students all know what will happen next, for they have heard about this climactic class from friends and classmates. Even so, foreknowledge does not diminish the suspense. No one blinks as they watch a honeybee being placed on what appears to be a human hand. It is a human hand. It’s attached to the arm of Professor David Kesler who is explaining to the class what is about to happen.

There is a common exhalation of breath as the bee stings him. He continues to talk calmly about sting mechanisms, the enzymes that were injected into his bloodstream, his immune response.

What in the world is going on?

Students are learning biology in a way that is so compelling, they continue to talk about the class years later, just as many readers of this magazine remember fondly the pedagogy of their professors and have even been known to quote from their long-ago lectures.

This is your invitation to visit four very different classes and see for yourself that great teaching continues to thrive at Rhodes.

We’ll be visiting:

  • Biology 105 -- Biology Through Bees
  • History 247 -- The American South
  • Political Science 211 -- Politics and Literature
  • Theatre 310 -- Stage Direction

What do they have in common? At first glance, very little. One makes heavy use of computer technology. Most involve lectures, all require reading and classroom discussion is common to all. They come from different areas of the curriculum and are available to students in different stages of their college experience.

The biology course is for non-majors—baby biology, as it has sometimes been dubbed. The history and political science classes are also open to non-majors. Stage direction is most often sought out by theatre majors.

All affect students in profound ways.

The Buzz

 Rhodes biology professor Dr. David Kesler has thrown away his “yellowed notes” and put his courses online—everything from his PowerPoint lectures to previous years’ final exams. He rarely writes on a board and his students take notes in the margins of his PowerPoint of the day. He can monitor when and how often students review the online class notes. Their quizzes, which they take before each class meeting, grade themselves automatically.

This pedagogy works well for all of Kesler’s classes for biology majors. He finds it works especially well in his class for nonmajors, Biology Through Bees.

Students are hooked on the first day of class with a list of questions that seem simple, practical and thought-provoking, such as:

  • What is nectar?
  • What is wax?
  • Why does honey not spoil?
  • Why do all plants and animals require oxygen?
  • How do bees fly?
  • How do bees find flowers?
  • How do bees communicate the location of flowers to each other?

In the course of finding answers to those questions, the students learn about life’s most complicated processes through a combination of observation, laboratory experiments, reading and discussion.

Rather than coddling his non-science students, Kesler tells them from the outset that he will expect more from them than from biology majors. After all, he tells them, “You have had much more experience reading, writing and thinking than science students have.” He warns them that the class will be rigorous but tacitly promises it will be worth the effort. He intrigues them by training bees with sugar to go to certain locations on campus and allows the students to magically discover them where he said they would be.

Students find that the course is rigorous, enchanting and life-changing, another of Kesler’s promises. “If you are completely satisfied with yourself and are uninterested in exploring yourself and the world around you, please consider another course,” he states in the syllabus.

Kaitie Yeoman ’08, who took the class in the fall of 2004 as a first-year student, wanted to get a science requirement out of the way before she got “into a real humanities state of mind. I attended a public high school in Pontotoc, MS, and had the same science teacher all four years. The syllabus scared me, and I thought I might drop it.”

But Kesler encouraged her by e-mail to give it a try and she’s glad she did. “It was absolutely amazing!” she marvels. “I talk about it all the time. I tell my friends, ‘If you don’t like science, take this course. It’s not what you think it is.’”

She loved the online (WebCT) aspect and the fact that she was required to take a quiz before each class. “Talk about immediate gratification! You get three chances and you can instantly learn from your mistakes. He makes it impossible to fall behind.”

Yeoman is quick to add that the course is not easy. However, “Prof. Kesler is such a great teacher, he makes it possible for students to succeed. He gives such specific examples, he makes you wrap your mind around the subject. Prof. Kesler relates everything to bees; it really gives the class a thread of continuity.

“Awesome,” she concludes.

Jennifer Andrews ’05, an English major from Marianna, AR, put off her last science requirement until her senior year and now she’s sorry. “Now I like science,” she says. “It gave me a great sense of how the world works and my connection to it. In the humanities it’s easy to get alienated from the physical world. I loved learning about my impact on the world and its impact on me.”

Andrews also appreciated the online aspects of the course. “I tend to be a very detailed notetaker. Having the PowerPoint presentations freed me to ask questions and really think about what was being said.”

And she liked the fact that Kesler’s expectations were high and clear. “He made a major point that this was not an easy course, a baby version,” she says. “But the class was so interesting, I had no problem keeping up.

“Rhodes has changed everything for me,” Andrews muses. “I came from a small, very conservative town and never had to write a paper before I came here. Taking this course made me sad in a way because I realized I could have made it here in anything I chose to major in. I was just too scared to try. I won’t make that mistake in the future.”

Beyond the Myths

Southern history, as it is taught at Rhodes, is vastly different from the course offered most places where it is typically broken into two semester-long units that deal with “the Old South” and “the New South.” “I consciously decided not to break it up that way,” says Tim Huebner, who was recently named Tennessee Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

Instead, Huebner offers a survey course that is open to all and consists of a “romp” through 400 years of Southern history—from Jamestown to the present—in 14 weeks. The first half of the one-semester course deals with settlement and the origins of slavery. Then the class turns its attention to the Civil War, Reconstruction, the “New South” of the late 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on the civil rights movement. “We spend over two weeks on that, much more time than we spend on the war or Reconstruction,” he says, “because it brought about much more significant racial change.”

Race inevitably plays a central role in the course. “In a very real sense, the history of the South is a history of race relations,” Huebner believes. “You can’t talk about one without the other. The story of the South is at the heart of the American experience and that’s primarily because of slavery. It was accepted and supported by the government in the beginning. It was written into the Constitution. So we have to talk about many difficult subjects, among them the burden of our ugly racist past.”

Huebner finds that his students, who are predominantly Southern, allow him license to discuss difficult matters because he is also a Southerner. It also helps that he doesn’t make any judgments. “Being confrontational is not the point,” he believes. “My job is to present the evidence and let them make their own judgments.”

And they do. Kate Snider ’07, a political science major from Evansville, IN, said she was relieved to learn that Southerners don’t follow the stereotypical Scarlett O’Hara model. “I loved reading The Making of a Southerner by Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin,” Snyder says. “Lumpkin came from a Scarlett background, but she was changed by her experiences.”

DeAnna Adams ’01, associate registrar at Rhodes, was a nontraditional student in the class. Adams earned her degree over a 13-year period while working full-time and raising her children. “I was raised not hearing both sides of the story,” she says. “I saw the South as a stereotypically charming place. In this class I learned of the struggles. I think it made me a more sensitive person.”

There’s plenty to be sensitive about, and Huebner forbids shallow opinions. When students recoil in horror from slavery or lynching, he acknowledges the validity of their feelings. “Our ancestors did some terrible things,” he says. “It’s equally true that most of the people we regard as heroes wouldn’t measure up to modern standards. Our world is a very different place from that of the 19th century.

“Even Abraham Lincoln said and did some things while running for office that are pretty appalling. Afterward, he evolved, learned, grew and changed.”

Huebner points out that there’s a name for judging the actions of the past by the standards of the present. “It’s called presentism and it’s dangerous. We need to remember that people 100 years from now will point to our biases with horror. History isn’t about other people. What happened in the past has a great deal to do with why we think and define ourselves as we do. We should remember that.”

The award-winning professor’s view of Southern history accounts in part for his love for teaching it. “Like many Southerners, I have a love/hate relationship with the place,” he admits. “Some of my passion comes from my desire for the South to change and grow—to learn from the past and be transformed as a result.”

Whatever drives the intensity, there’s no question that it’s there. He prepares carefully for class and usually lectures without notes because, “I need to share my passion with the students. I can’t do that if I’m tied to a lectern or pages of notes.”

And the students respond. “He has a way of lecturing that’s like he’s sharing what’s important in life,” Snider recalls. “It’s very compelling.”

Adams agrees. “I had many wonderful professors at Rhodes, and Tim is at the very top of the list. I’m not political by nature. I’m more interested in the social aspects of history, but he even made the Constitution and the judicial system interesting.”

Robert Edgecombe ’04 writes, “No more than two weeks into my first class with him, all doubt about my choice of a major had disappeared. Though his reputation as a passionate teacher had preceded him, the extent to which I was completely captivated by his lectures and consistently amazed by his ability to elicit all the historical complexity of eras and events in such creative and dynamic ways exceeded all my expectations. His innovation ignited my interest in historical research from the very beginning, and every experience with him in the classroom solidified that interest.”

Midwife to the Mind

Professor Dan Cullen may have been one of those people who had a difficult time deciding what he wanted to be when he grew up. Or maybe he just means it when he says, “You can’t teach political theory without literature.” So far (See: “How They Keep It Fresh”), his Politics and Literature course is structured as an intense look at the foundations of American political thought. Cullen points out that the Declaration of Independence and, to some extent, the Constitution are based on modern natural rights theory, its notion of a social contract and the tension between nature and society. As the syllabus states, “Much of our reading will explore themes such as: the natural condition, the good of the individual, whether the demands society makes on individuals are good or bad for them. The broadest theme of the course might be described (with a nod to Freud) as ‘civilization and its discontents.’ Dissatisfaction with social life, with ‘progress,’ with the kind of individualism sanctioned by a commercial or ‘bourgeois’ culture, has been a recurring theme in Western thought since Rousseau first protested against enlightenment and modernity on behalf of our natural feelings.”

Cullen explains that classic American literature explores many of the tensions inherent in modern political theory. “The theme of modern literature could be said to be: What does it mean to be a self? And modern political theory has the same starting point: What is the self, what is the individual conceived outside of social relations and obligations, and what, then, is the status of that individual within a social and political convention? Literature sometimes conveys an immediacy and force, something that abstract doctrines obscure. There’s a power in seeing theoretical propositions dramatized in characters we recognize and with whom we can identify. That enables students to see the stakes, the potency of questions like the meaning of freedom, equality, justice and rights. They may not register as abstract terms.”

For example, he points out, “Melville’s Billy Budd depicts a natural man thrust into a social and political setting for which he is unsuited. Cooper’s Natty Bumpo is another iteration of a natural man on the margins of society. Conrad’s Secret Agent takes the reader inside the mind of a terrorist. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon portrays how the Bolshevik revolution ‘applied’ Marxist ideas and turned a vision of liberation into a blueprint for tyranny.”

Ashley Kutz ’04, an English literature/political science double major, enthusiastically agrees. “An interdisciplinary liberal arts education at Rhodes develops students who are knowledgeable of contemporary issues and have the analytical ability to dissect in order to connect. This course integrates conceptual knowledge and uses it to illuminate and place in perspective important contemporary issues. It was one of my all-time favorite courses.”

In the words of Stephen Ogden ’05, a religious studies and philosophy double major who took the course last fall, “In the beginning we read Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, so we got a heavy dose of dense political philosophy. Then we started reading novels, and it was fun to watch their ideas manifest themselves in literature. It gave me a very strong sense that the philosophers’ writings are not just a bunch of free-floating ideas but important concepts that manifest themselves in other peoples’ writing, thoughts and actions even today.”

The reading list from the most recent course was:

  • Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays
  • William Golding, Lord of the Flies
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Herman Melville, Typee, Billy Budd and Other Tales
  • Philip Roth, The Human Stain
  • Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

It’s not hard to see that the first six writers on the list explored, as Cullen phrases it, “themes at the heart of social contract theory. Is the best life lived close to nature or in a more civilized environment?”

But Bonfire of the Vanities? “I wanted to touch on the theme of contemporary American life and examine the disquietude about success and the American dream,” he explains. “Wolfe did a masterful job of capturing the spirit of the late 1980s, when the culture of capitalism and acquisitiveness was in its heyday. I’m always looking for good contemporary sources.”

Cullen claims he teaches the course partly out of selfishness because it allows him to indulge in what he terms his “guilty pleasure. I always include Billy Budd because it got under my skin. It raises issues that never bore me. Every time I return to it I am excited, perplexed and informed. I can read or see a Shakespeare play over and over again and there will always be something new, always a surprise, always a gain.”

Then there’s Milton. “I had never read Paradise Lost until I taught the Search course and now I want to read and study it inch by inch. The beauty and power of the language, the profundity of the thinking astonish me.”

Cullen is known among students as a wizard in the classroom, and he is also in high demand with the lifelong learners at the Meeman Center. He claims to be surprised by this news. “I’m always nervous going into a class,” he says. “I’m neurotic about preparation to the point that I always feel underprepared. I always reread even the most familiar material because great literature is inexhaustible, classroom time is precious and one has to try to rekindle interest each time. I worry that my matches will be wet.”

Nor will he acknowledge that his pedagogical skills have much to do with his classroom success. “There is so much wisdom and excitement contained in the works themselves, all I have to do is remove barriers such as lack of familiarity. I function as a midwife, in a way, to convince them to open their minds. The works themselves have the charm.”

Michael Faber ’98, now a development staffer at Harvard, describes the class as “compelling and formative. Dan is passionate in his teaching and is very good at making people feel valued, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, because I lived too far away to go home often, I had Thanksgiving dinner with his family every year. He wouldn’t have it any other way. And in class, he had an incredible ability to keep a straight face when someone said something dumb.”

Ogden adds, “He’s a compelling lecturer, partly because of his keen philosophical insights. He’s very humorous but knows when to be serious. He uses great illustrations and has a wonderful talent for drawing out ideas from students and the text. And his passion for the subject matter is contagious.

“One of the things I liked most about the course is that it reinforced my ability to think organically,” he continues. “Sometimes it was hard to tell whether I was sitting in class with a literature professor, a political scientist or a philosopher because he’s so passionate about all of them, not to mention sociology and anthropology. There’s just something wonderful about a political science professor who can rattle off information on the literary criticism of Billy Budd.”

The Hero Inside

Few who know her would guess it, but one of Professor Julia “Cookie” Ewing’s favorite words is power. She just defines the term in surprising ways.

Ewing keeps a list of her teaching goals on the wall of her office. It is a long list. The first item on it reads, “I want students to discover how powerful they are in their own life.” Pushed to explain, she gives a lengthy, fascinating discourse. She concludes, “It saddens me that so many people don’t know how powerful we all are as human beings.” And, “Power is the ability to change, and we all have it.”

In a very real sense, this belief “powers” Ewing’s teaching. Wes Meador ’00, who recalls his classes with her fondly, says, “She would never let us stay in our comfort zones. She always pushed us to take risks because, as she would say, ‘College is the place you can do that.’ Everything I remember about her screams, ‘Grow, evolve, develop. Never settle.’”

Ewing pleads guilty as charged. She also confesses to making challenging demands on her students. It’s not enough to show up for her classes. “The students are required to bring their full being into the room, just as I bring mine. They have to be there, present in the moment and ready to work.”

The work takes a variety of forms. In her directing class, for example, the students may find themselves on stage with only a chair as a prop, with the instruction to find as many ways to relate to the chair as they can and the meaning of each relationship. “How well they succeed,” says Ewing, “has nothing to do with me. It’s all about where they are, what they’re trying to say, their ability to express it.”

That exercise comes after some rather grueling preparation. The course begins with two texts—“one short, one long, one pure exposition, one with some mysticism. We take those scripts apart,” she says. (Meador recalls spending an entire class period on two pages of script.) “We discover its architecture and its human elements. Then we learn how to give the work life with human actors.”

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. For Ewing believes passionately that the students must discover for themselves what they want to say and how they want to say it. “I never doubted for a moment that she had all the answers, but she never once told any of us what the answer was,” Meador says. “Instead, she asks enough of the right questions that you can find the answers yourself. She pulls it out of you, makes you come to the understanding yourself. There’s no better way to build confidence.”

Students who take Ewing’s theater classes merely to satisfy a fine arts requirement or to earn an easy A (See: No Easy A) are in for a big surprise, for they find themselves engulfed in demanding reading assignments, keeping journals and records, not to mention the difficult and tedious process of scheduling rehearsals that require the presence of several other busy students. Somewhere along the way they learn the guidelines for staging plays, blocking, the use of light and space, how visual elements work together and how to pull from a cast the director’s vision of what the production should convey.

Ewing steadfastly maintains that she has very little to do with her students’ success. “There’s an old Buddhist saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m just fortunate that I get to be around when they’re ready.”

But the students don’t buy it. Kyle Hatley ’04, a promising young professional actor, director and playwright who’s currently performing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, says, “She’s a miracle worker. She can find something in everybody. She’s absolutely brilliant at helping her students discover their own art, their own work. I loved her directing class so much, I continued it with a friend when it was over. We called it Work in Progress.”

Meador says, “There’s something about her that makes her students want to push harder. She’s so talented and so smart, we don’t want to let her down. She just cares so much—to call her passionate would be an understatement. Her biggest concern is her students and the rest of the world, and she makes us want to get more in touch with that world.”

If she accomplishes that, Ewing will have succeeded. She tells about moments of experiencing art—the opening scene of Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, watching Baryshnikov perform—that brought her to her knees. “That’s what we’re trying to train students to deliver and to receive,” she says. “Those intense aesthetic experiences that happen often in theatre get us in touch with our human core and give us compassion for those around us. Without those sensibilities there can be no culture, no humanity, no society, no growth.

“My goal is to get my students to the point where they can teach me.” And for the ones who do not choose theater as a profession, “I want them to be excellent receivers. I want them to discover the hero inside themselves. The arts help you do that.”