Terms of Engagement

By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66


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Gail Streete, W.J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies

When signing up for academic courses, there’s a tacit agreement between student and professor: The student will attend class and complete the required assignments; the professor will determine the merits of the student’s efforts. At Rhodes, the relationship is much more than that. It’s a matter of engagement.

Rhodes’ renowned faculty are known for engaging their students in the classroom, even in their own research and certainly in individual student research. It’s an art, a fine art—that stems not just from intellect but from the heart, for the soul of Rhodes’ faculty is their sheer love of teaching.

Interaction

Brent Hoffmeister
Van Vleet Fellow in Physics
B.A. Wabash College; Ph.D. Washington University

“I believe in active learning inside the classroom, and I try to be as interactive with the students as possible,” says Brent Hoffmeister. “I usually lecture no longer than 10 minutes at a time, and even then I ask the students lots of questions to keep them engaged. Between these short lecture periods I break up our class meetings with demonstrations and short projects or problems that students work on in small groups.”

For Hoffmeister, though, the classroom door opens both ways.

“I feel that most of my teaching actually occurs outside the classroom, and I think that’s true of most faculty at Rhodes,” he says.

“Some of our physics courses require students to apply what they learn by completing a major project of some type, and our department involves them in faculty research as well. This past summer, seven students—about half our total number of majors—worked on projects in our department. Many others worked in major research labs at places like Florida State, Penn State, Baylor and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Research experiences are critical in helping our students develop as scientists. They also facilitate close interaction between faculty and students, which I enjoy. By working with us in our research, students learn how the business of science is conducted, how experiments are designed, how grant proposals are prepared, how data are acquired and analyzed and how the results are communicated to the broader scientific community. As a department, we stress good communication skills. Our students formally present research at scientific meetings several times before they graduate.

“We also enjoy involving students in areas of research that are outside our immediate areas of expertise. A good example of this is the recent microgravity experiment we did with NASA involving the orbital stability of electrically-charged spheres. I think students like to watch how we reason through problems that are as new to us as they are to them. Also, I think they feel a little more like our colleagues than just students helping out.

“My own research interests mainly fall in the area of medical applications of physics. Most of my work has involved using ultrasound as a medical tool for characterizing tissues. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of work lately using a special ultrasonic measurement technique called a backscatter measurement to try to detect and quantify changes that occur to bone as the result of the degenerative effects of osteoporosis.

“One of the nice things about this type of research is that it crosses over into a lot of areas of science and medicine,” says Hoffmeister, who involves both physics and biology majors in this work.

“For each student who does research with me, I like them to finish the experience with a tangible outcome of some kind. Often this takes the form of a formal presentation at a meeting or a paper in a professional journal. Students have been authors with me on 10 published papers and 26 presentations at professional meetings. Whenever possible, I try to arrange for the student to be the presenter at the professional meetings, and I encourage them to present their work at student meetings.

“Another important way we engage students outside of the classroom is through the Society of Physics Students (SPS), for which I have been faculty adviser for eight years. Our chapter, which has been recognized as the outstanding chapter in our five-state region for seven years in a row, promotes a sense of community among students interested in physics by involving them in fun social events such as our famous pumpkin drop event on Halloween, and scientific outreach to the community. Our chapter regularly goes into local schools to teach students about physics and excite them about science. I’m very proud of the good work that our SPS does in this area, and I think our students find the experience both engaging and rewarding.

“We have an open-door office policy, and we provide students with space to study together in the physics building. We also enjoy social events with our students. This close interaction between faculty and students helps the students understand that we’re all on the same team, working toward the same goal of helping them become good scientists.”

Becoming

Anita Davis ’90
Associate Professor of Psychology
B.A. Rhodes College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“When I was a student at Rhodes, the faculty I admired most were able to engage us, challenge us and make us think critically about ourselves and the world we live in,” says Anita Davis. “That was really important to me, so when I came back as a faculty member, those are the kinds of things I wanted to do for my students.”

Davis is a clinical/community psychologist, which, she says, “combines two different approaches to empowering people and communities. One of these perspectives is exemplified in the Counseling Psychology course that I teach.

“The Counseling Psychology course is often taken by students who are thinking about a counseling or clinical psychology career,” she explains. “From the very beginning, I tell students that this course will sometimes make them uncomfortable because it requires them to take risks. I remind them, however, that living without taking risks is not really living. I also ask them to consider how will they expect their clients to takes risks if they are not willing to do so in their own lives. The course also encourages students to examine their own thoughts about how they and others come to be the people they are.”

In addition to helping students come to know themselves and others, Davis believes that demanding much of students yet demonstrating that she cares about them is critical to her effectiveness. She tells them, “I know my standards are probably higher than you think they should be, and that’s fine, because not only do I set my standards high, I will do all that I can to help you meet those standards. But if I set low standards, if I don’t challenge you, then what is the message I’m communicating—that I don’t think you’re capable?”

She also cautions them about their tendency to overcommit “because overcommitting often means they aren’t able to meet their own standards.” Davis is convinced that “many of our students feel like they have to do everything and that it’s sometimes refreshing and shocking for them to hear a professor say that everything’s not equally important and that they can prioritize. By communicating this, I believe that they come to realize what their limits are and what’s reasonable to take on.”

The other half of her identity, the community psychologist, works collaboratively with diverse communities. She has included Rhodes students in various research projects including working with local schools, youth organizations, even on the Rhodes campus. As a student at Rhodes, Davis completed honors research with Professor Marsha Walton.

“I credit her with my passion for research, which is one of the things I want our students to get fired up about,” says Davis. “Students often think research is going to be painful and boring, but it is exciting to see when they come alive with a project in which they’ve become invested. It’s not something they expect. A large percentage of our students will go to graduate school. When they leave Rhodes I want them prepared for those first classes in graduate school.”

“Embedded in the community psychology approach of how to conduct research is a commitment to social change,” she adds. “I’m always challenging our students to think about changing the world in ways that would make it better for others. That’s our responsibility. We’re privileged to have gotten an excellent educational foundation. We’re privileged to have the opportunity to be in a classroom with smart people asking important questions that have the potential to be transformative in terms of our campus, our community and our society. My profession allows me to do that, to tap into the social change component and think about how I can motivate students. Many of our students don’t necessarily think the world can be changed. They don’t feel their power. So I try to help them realize how much power they do have relative to other groups of people. And with that power comes the responsibility to do, to change.”

Passion

Gail Streete
B.A., M.A., M.L.S. SUNY Buffalo; M. Phil., Ph.D. Drew University

“I have a certain niche in that most of my classes are for first-year students taking the foundational classes, The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion, and Life: Then and Now,” says Gail Streete. At Rhodes, the pedagogical approach is an academic study of religion and the Bible, with which students can be unfamiliar—and often uncomfortable if they perceive that it challenges their basic beliefs.

“You really need to know where students are coming from in terms of their beliefs,” Streete explains. “You can’t just whip those beliefs away. You have to lay it all out there and be very careful how you guide your students. The best way I’ve found is to put people’s noses right in the text and simply instruct them to read it. For example, with the Genesis narratives—students sometimes ask which one is the ‘right’ one. I tell them, ‘Well, they’re both right. This is not a choice that is being made for you. Both of them were put there, they complement each other, they say different things.’ Those can be revelatory moments.

“I get some pretty active opposition from some students who may prefer a ‘seminary’ study of the Bible. We are preparing people to go to seminary, if that’s what they want, but in those introductory classes, that’s not what we teach. I may not share where some students are coming from, but I understand it.” Streete understands a great deal more about her students.

“First-year students are dealing with many other things besides academics, such as being away from home, roommate problems, growing up, alcohol awareness, matters of the head and heart.

“I think if faculty are interested in and love what they’re doing, people are really attracted to that. It makes them want to learn. If you’re really passionate about the subject, the students will catch that. If you’re not, if you’re just going through the drill—remember that these are bright people—they can figure it out.

“Also, you have to know who you are as a professor. It’s not totally all about the students. If you don’t have a good sense of what works for you and what you want to do, it’s going to fall flat.”

Streete’s sense of humor also serves her well in that regard. She distributes three handouts to students. There is Prof. Streete’s Twelve Rules for Living. Rule 7: “Not everyone thinks as you do, but be sure you think.” Her Seven Commandments for Better Essays mean business. Commandment 4: “THOU SHALT proof-read. Not proof-reading frequently taketh the name of YHWH thy God in vain.” Etiquette is important, too. Prof. Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Proper Classroom Behavior states: “Small classes mean that you are not invisible! Your professor will not be favorably impressed by nonresponsiveness, especially if class participation is part of your grade.”

“What keeps me on the level where I should be is remembering when I was in college,” she says. “I went to a large state university, which I liked very much. We had a distinguished visiting professor from Harvard who taught Roman history, but he was a terrible teacher. When I had an interview in his office, he said that I had done ‘very well for an undergraduate.’ I knew that he preferred teaching graduate students, and I was really irritated at that. I thought, ‘Here you are droning on for an hour and a half and I’m a classics major; I need to take these classes, but you’re not giving me what I need to know.’

“That always stuck in my mind. When I decided to be a professor of higher education, I thought, ‘I will never, ever treat undergraduates as if they were not worthy of my time and attention.’

“Students can get into a place where they think, ‘Maybe there is something different from what I’ve learned before. Maybe her aim is not to shatter my real feelings but to make me see things differently.’ That is where I want to take them.”

Environment

Charles McKinney
Assistant Professor of History
BA. Morehouse College; M.A., Ph.D. Duke University

Charles McKinney brought some special credentials with him to Rhodes in 2004. Earlier in his career, he’d planned to take a year off between getting his master’s degree and delving into his doctoral studies at Duke. Along the way, one year turned into six. Staying in Durham, he first became a partnership manager at Public Allies (part of AmeriCorps), a leadership development organization for people aged 18 to 30. Then he did a stint as curriculum coordinator for the PROUD Program (Personal Responsibility to Overcome with Understanding and Determination), a juvenile diversion program for ages 13-18.

“A lot of my technique is heavily influenced by the time I spent outside the academy working in the nonprofit community,” he says. “Many of the assumptions you have about pedagogy break down when you’re dealing with nontraditional populations outside a traditional classroom setting. That helped a lot because when I got ready to teach in a more formal setting I was perfectly willing and prepared to expand the bounds of that traditional interaction.

“That means I was perfectly willing to create an environment in my classes where we learn as a community. When I got to Rhodes I was eager to come to a place that was really conducive to that sort of learning. You can do things in a class of 15 or 20 that you obviously can’t do with a class of 40, or 240, for that matter. There’s a lot of small group work. There’s a lot of time built in classes so folks can really reflect on the readings. I find that in many of my classes, students are much more willing to talk to each other than to talk to me. They feel in many instances more empowered. When it’s really hitting on all four cylinders those small groups steer the direction of the class. That means I must be flexible in terms of going where the students feel they need to go. If I am prepared to come in and talk about x, y and z, but the students display a lot of energy around a, b and c, that’s fine.

“Another thing I like, though it’s been disparaged lately, is the good old-fashioned lecture. The lecture has fallen in disrepute in a lot of circles, though not necessarily at Rhodes. I’m not a Luddite—I am teaching myself PowerPoint and WebCT—but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a good oldfashioned lecture. I think properly used, students get a lot out of it. When I de-emphasize lectures in my classes, students comment, ‘I wish you would have lectured more.’

“I pride myself on making engaging lectures that feed off of questions, scenarios. One of the things that’s always attracted me to history is that the best histories are fraught with tension, the consequences of our own humanity. When you bring these things to life, the choices that people have to make—from great men and women on down to plain, old, ordinary folk—when you illuminate these hard choices that they have to make, that’s the greatest drama there is—the drama of the human condition. Particularly in instances where there are no right choices, I can put the lecture on pause and we can spend half of the class plumbing the depths of the human condition. Many a day goes by that I don’t finish my lecture because when it’s going right, people have concerns, questions, take issue with choices their peers would make in a particular situation. The lecture, when done right, can be a wonderful tool to help figure out where the class needs to go. My classes are part lecture, part discussion, part question-and-answer rolled into one. Students get their questions answered, they get the information they need, and they have the opportunity to hear from their peers.”

Creativity

Stephen Schottenfeld
Assistant Professor of English
B.A. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; M.A. Johns Hopkins M.F.A. University of Iowa

Stephen Schottenfeld teaches introductory and advanced fiction writing, playwriting, screenwriting and modern literature. A fiction writer himself, he makes sure all his classes have “a good, varied reading list— material that would excite and surprise them. You have to be a serious reader to be a serious writer,” he says.

“In the fiction class, you’re not trying to mold students into acquiring one particular writing style, but to expose them to a wide array of voices—and to improve their precision. I want them to acquire a love for literature, and on a more basic level, a love and appreciation for language.

“We do a lot of in-class exercises in the fiction class. The students write four short stories, plus revisions, so they’re kind of intimidated by their ability to generate that material. The exercises might help spark certain narratives or perhaps the discovery of certain images or characters. I might take the opening line of a story, or the narrative arc, or the twist, or some element of the story that defines it and have them write off of that. Or I’ll throw lines or words or photographs up on the board and have them write about one of those.

“These prompts show them that their imaginations and experiences are much larger and broader than they may have thought. They might come in thinking, ‘I really don’t know what story to tell,’ so you try to open them up to look at their lives, to tap into their imagination.

“We’ll workshop a story in the fiction class. Every day we discuss stories from an anthology of published writers, but when we workshop a story, the class discusses one another’s work for 12-15 minutes each.

“Some students are more acutely sensitive to this process. It can be a delicate line—you want to encourage people to keep going and not get discouraged, and so you don’t want every story to be torn apart. But it’s an apprenticeship. You have to establish high standards and encourage people to be willing to point out where a story may break down. I think as long as students feel everyone is giving a story a thorough read on its own terms, then they’re more open to the feedback. It creates a large umbrella, where everything is welcome, but judged on a high standard.

“There’s incredible talent here at Rhodes. The students are hardworking and show great progress each semester. I think they surprise themselves, too. They have a great ability to write about place and idiosyncratic characters. Memphis itself is a great place to write about—there are great stories, great characters, great dialogue.”

Great resources, too. Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer (award winning Hustle & Flow and upcoming Black Snake Moan) has spoken to Schottenfeld’s screenwriting class, which is now cross-listed with film studies. His playwriting class works with the Rhodes Theater Department. Students can submit work to professors Cookie Ewing and David Jilg, who then select some of them for a stage reading or performance.

“I’m constantly surprised by my students,” says Schottenfeld. “And they all just get better.”