I just had a really good semester in the classroom, the best at Pepperdine. In the first two years, I had some good classes and even three or four great ones: “great” means you cannot ask for more. But for each semester there was at least one class out of three or four (depending on the semester) that was average at best or, at least once in my first year, quite sub-par. Well, not this fall. If the third time is the charm in trying most things in life, then the third year might be my charm in full-time teaching.
Charm and luck, plus art and craft, figuratively and literally. Back in August, I was determined to make this fall the best semester, especially since I’ve taught these classes at least once before. It means, basically, keeping the things that worked, changing the things that didn’t, and, trickiest of all, adapting so to bring out the best from the combination of students in each class. Bernard Bailyn has famously said that history is sometimes an art, always a craft, and never a science. When it comes to classroom teaching, there are parallels and equivalents to the illustrious historian’s proposition.
There were a few challenges, including a small fatigue factor due to teaching a second summer class besides the usual American history survey at Pepperdine. It was the Vietnam War course at UC Riverside. I seized upon the opportunity – thanks again to David Biggs – for I wanted to honor the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war by teaching it. You could say it was an emotive motive, and those of us in academia probably ride on emotion a lot more than we may acknowledge publicly. But this class also went on into August and, in fact, I finished grading finals for Riverside a couple of days before heading back in Malibu. It was meant to be one-time thing, but the lesson for rest and recuperation has been well absorbed.
That said, the semester went well, at least from my perspective, and I’m quite pleased. I made sure to get to the faculty dining room once a week to get a good meal and shared some time with colleagues outside of meetings. My tenure-track cohort was a terrific group of people who unknowingly helped me, the oldest of the bunch, feel young again. Our mentors shared a great deal of experience each month. Divisional colleagues, especially in Great Books and history, were supportive as always.
Most of all, the classes jelled individually and collectively. There was a good deal of laughter: always a good sign. There was also a lot of writing, and in fact several writing records were broken. There were a couple of very long forum posts in Great Books, each was equivalent of half an essay. Then there was a final exam for the American history survey that went for 34 pages. Yep, you read it right: a double-spaced thirty-four-pager of an exam and not a research paper! Most memorable are the dedications that two Great Books students wrote in their writing portfolios. They are the longest dedications, by far, from all my Great Books classes in the last two and a half years, totaling 877 words or three double-spaced pages. (Most dedications run between ten and thirty words.) Quality trumps quantity. There is also a great deal of quality in these large quantities, especially the thoughtful and touching dedications.
Another record is the number of student-athletes. I’ve had a number of athletes in the history survey course since teaching it in Spring 2014. But this semester saw eighteen out of thirty, or exactly 60%. Still, another is the number of people who came to my classes. I participated in the Fridays In Fall, a recruitment program that brought prospective students to campus. Most Friday mornings during October and November saw two to five visitors in my history class to observe.
Then there are people who came by invitation. I’d often invited different folks to my classes in the first two years, but this semester saw the largest number. Learning in the humanities is more communal than we may recognize or acknowledge. When aptly planned, even a brief appearance helps in the education. My appreciation goes to the following faculty, staff, and former students who came by my classes in various capacities: Jenieva Abner, Deborah DeChiara-Quenzer, Jacqueline Dillion, Rachel Rant, Jane Rodeheffer, Paul Stenis, Andy Wall, and Shelle Welty for Great Books; and Sarin Aladadi, Chiconia Anderson, Andy Benton, Rahje Branch, Ellen Caldwell, David Holmes, Christina Littlefield, Rachel Siegman, and Lin Zhu for HIST 204. Bryan Givens gets a special commendation for getting pulled off the hallway at the last minute on the last day of classes.
Most of all, a big thank you to the students in my classes. Responsibility for the class starts and ends with the professor, and improvement typically begins there. But there could be no success without a lot of effort and participation from students. It was a pleasure to have three terrific groups in CAC 301 and the Great Books Room this semester. As the case with previous years, there were many moments about each class that I will carry in my mind for a long time, including a few precious memories that only death or Alzheimer’s can take away from me.
A month ago, I looked at my schedule for next semester and felt slightly in awe that I will have only two classes. That’s right, two sections of the same prep. Since I have no kids and no elderly parents to care for, anything fewer than three book manuscripts by semester’s end shall be considered a failure. Ok, I kid! But Seaver College, the undergraduate school at Pepperdine, is primarily a teaching institution (but with expectation for research as most liberal arts colleges). I am not at a Research I university – in fact, only four private universities in California are classified as Research I: Caltech, Claremont, Stanford, and USC. I don’t know how research-productive I will be. But I view next semester as right, privilege, and luxury rolled into one bundle.
Still, there is prepping to complete for the spring, and I resort to the still fresh memories from the fall to keep the momentum alive. The majority of memories have to do with students and some are about visitors. But there are also a few about myself, and one memory has to do with my feet. That is, I lifted my feet to eye level during a discussion in the Great Books Room.
You see, this fall was quite warm in Southern California, and on this particular day I was wearing an untucked button-down short-sleeve shirt matched to a pair of classic if casual light-tan khakis, plus Asian beach-style flip flops purchased from my favorite knick knack store in Little Saigon. When it comes to dressing, West Coast academics as a whole are more casual than their counterparts in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South. I can’t remember the reading assignment for that day, or even the context to the discussion at that point. But it was exactly regional differences in America that prompted me to raise my flip-flopped feet as Exhibit A while perching on one of the firm leather-bound chairs in the room. The sight cracked up some students, then we moved on with the discussion to something else.
Now, I had never raised my feet in any classroom before and don’t expect to raise them again any soon. But the spontaneous little episode made me realize that my extroversion extends to the entire body, even in the classroom, where behavior tends to be more guarded. We all know that extroverts talk more than introverts. It isn’t that they are any more predisposed to friendliness or friendship than introverts, or that introverts are any less. But they are energetic in groups precisely because they get energized by being around people. Not only they talk more, but they may also move their body parts more.
In my case, it isn’t merely the mouth spouting verbiage since I often move eyes, head, shoulder, chest, back, legs, and, especially, arms and hands. In Great Books colloquia, where participants sit in a circle, I’d occasionally stand up or move around or walk a line or make a jump to illustrate a point. (Of course, I typically stand in lecture classes like the history survey and the Vietnam Conflict.) While sitting, I wave and gesture my arms a good deal as signal to students raising their hands. Equally, I use my arms and hands for emphasis, comparison or contrast, or illustration – such as counting the categories discussed thus far with my fingers, or drawing an square or circle in the air. So ingrained it is by now that I wonder if I could ever teach a class without my arms.
Apparently I also talk with my arms and hands at academic conferences, as seen from the photos below. At this panel, several Pepperdine faculty shared their thoughts on vocation to a group of graduate students in the humanities. I later asked the conference photographer for a few photos, and they made me realize that I am one of those hopeless people who cannot speak without flinging their hands and arms and a few other body parts.
It doesn’t always work, I fear, but it could be fun when it does. The most delightful comment I’ve ever received for giving a conference paper came from Janet Hoskins, esteemed professor of anthropology at USC. I met her for the first time a little over a year ago, at a conference on Vietnam at the University of Oregon. On the second day, she came to my panel and watched my presentation on anticommunism and re-education camps. She told me afterwards in a measured tone, “You are the most Italian of all Vietnamese presenters I’ve ever seen.” Since Janet has been to a lot of academic conferences and seen many presenters from a Vietnamese background, I completely believed her and took it as a compliment of sorts. (I hope she meant it as a compliment, ha!)
Of course, there are many speakers with their hands in the world. There must be a lot of them in business. There are quite a few in politics: Mussolini, anyone? My cohort mentor John Watson once told me that he’s seen a number of U.S. presidents speak in person, and the most impressive were Reagan and Clinton. You could be listening to Bill Clinton in a room of a thousand people, John said, and Clinton could make you feel as if he were speaking to you personally. Language and tone and eye contact matter much, but it’s not a surprise that Clinton uses a lot of hand gestures. My favorite may be Lyndon Johnson and his infamous “The Treatment,” complete with charm or profanity depending on the situation, plus the imposition of his large Texan frame on the fellow who had the misfortune of being his target.
Reflecting its particular atmosphere, it is hardly a surprise there is only a minority of “speakers with hands” in academia. My colleague David Holmes, who sits next to me in one of the photos above, is another. Although he commands the most with his fine voice – pitch, intonation, pacing, etc. – he showed enough physical gestures and movements at the two occasions, one while standing and one while sitting, that I heard him speak. Back in April, Tuong Vu was in Southern California and took me to visit the Vietnamese historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường who lives near Little Saigon. Still recovering from cancer, the old man was vigorous and talked with gusto for most of the three-hour visit. As you can see from my snapshots below, he made plenty of hand gestures as well.
I take this trait of extroversion to be neither positive nor negative in itself. It’s what you do with it that counts. Like any personality trait, it should be integrated into other aspects of communication, including classroom teaching in this case. There are different means and ways towards “effective teaching.” The blending of personality and professional responsibilities and objectives must be among the reasons that make classroom teaching a major challenge for early-career academics like myself – and a great delight when it works out. There’s always more to work on, but I hope that it has worked out enough for me after two and a half years of full-time teaching.
Will see how next semester goes. Until then, have a happy New Year!