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They're rare, but a few college classes are so inspiring that students consider them must-takes

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It's a wonder John Renton can get his students to stay awake, much less see the Earth in a whole new way.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
John Renton who has taught "Intro to Geology "at West Virginia University for 39 years, says he still gets nervous before entering the lecture hall. But his passion for the subject -- and his refusal to recycle old lectures -- have helped to make the class one of the most popular on campus..
Click photo for larger image.

Most in his "Intro to Geology" course at West Virginia University are simply fulfilling a lab requirement, and on this particular morning, they're shaking off sleep in the place where learning often goes to die, the big impersonal freshman lecture hall.

A few of his 165 students are reading the newspaper or wolfing down breakfast as class starts. All are facing a subject that -- let's be honest here -- can be dry as rocks.

But something remarkable happens when the unassuming professor in jeans and a plaid shirt takes the microphone. He seems to will his students to care. It's no accident that his "Planet Earth" course feels like a gigantic living room chat, because Renton, 69, the son of a coal miner, has gotten up at dawn for nearly four decades so he can rehearse every line like an actor.

And when it comes to things like groundwater, well, don't even get him started. The man with the handlebar mustache is liable to get so worked up that his otherwise tame voice will overwhelm a wireless microphone strapped to his waist.

"That gallon of water you took out of your well is already 850 years old! That's before the Magna Carta was signed! That's before anybody knew about Columbus!" Renton bellows as the room's speaker system moans. "If you remember nothing else from this, remember that groundwater is a non-renewable resource!"

Such passion may be why alumni from decades past stop him on the street to say their Grand Canyon vacation meant so much because of his lecture on those mile-high wonders. It may be why students bring rocks to campus for Renton to identify -- items that sat unnoticed at home for years until he got them to think twice about Mother Nature, or "Mom" as he calls it.

"Aquicludes," said Eli Carey, 31, of Morgantown, as if the geological term were a revelation. He swears he now sees these rocks that impede water movement while driving to his hotel job every day, all because of Renton.

"I learned a lot more in that class than I thought I would," Carey said. "He was great."

Making memories

Most college students have had at least one remarkable course -- the one that changed the way they saw the world, the one they will be quoting to their spouses 30 years from now, the one that started out as a requirement but turned into something wondrous.

Sometimes, it's a course forcing students to step outside themselves, like Geoffrey Hitch's acting class for graduate business students at Carnegie Mellon University. Or it can turn them inward, like "The Power of Words," a language analysis course taught by Jeannine Fontaine at Indiana University of Pennsylvania or Larry Driscoll's course in lying at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Sometimes, it's just because of a guy like Renton, who has taught nearly 30,000 students since 1965 but refuses to go on autopilot.

The Post-Gazette set out several weeks ago to find courses like these at the region's colleges and universities, ones that are so stimulating that students see them as must-take classes, and graduates remember details from them years later.

It ended up being a journey of discovery and variety, from a course at Washington & Jefferson College that uses role play to teach Shakespeare to a 370-student psychology class at Penn State University, where beach balls fly alongside Freudian theory.

Some had enrollments of fewer than 20 students, while others rivaled the population of a small town. A few involved traditional lectures, while in one course, students wore no shoes. But all manage to do what seems increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet and a million more distractions.

They deeply engage their students.

And while the appeal of these classes may not cause a stir in the outside world, word among students travels fast.

Why else is there sometimes a waiting list of 50 or more students for a seat in Juniata College's "The Holocaust," an elective class taught by a German immigrant still haunted by the brutality of the Nazis' death camps?

At Duquesne University, word that Amanda Ford's music course in Eurhythmics might be eliminated in 1998 struck such a nerve that dozens of students fired off protest letters. Not only did the course survive, it's now required for all music majors.

Sometimes, a professor's name is all a student needs to be sold.

At Allegheny College, senior Arthur Craig, 22, had already finished his political science major but wanted another course by associate professor Howard Tamashiro. So he enrolled in "Political Psychology in International Politics," which explores how world events are shaped by perceptions, propaganda, racism and various psychological influences.

Tamashiro, 56, gets accolades even in an unforgiving forum like Ratemyprofessors.com, where anonymous student reviews of faculty nationwide can be brutal. "He's very difficult but really interesting and so smart. I really learned a lot," said one reviewer.

"He is the greatest!" wrote another.

What moves a student to gush like that?

Maybe it's the pride of walking out of class knowing you finally understand what the heck was going on in those Shakespeare plays, written in 16th-century English. That's what sometimes happens at Washington & Jefferson College because Annette Drew-Bear's students don't just read the works, they act out modern parallels.

In one student video project, a campus quarterback preparing his football team for kickoff became the modern parallel to a scene in Shakespeare's "Henry V," in which the king rallies his troops for the Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare used a chorus. In their video, students used a football announcer.

Drew-Bear, an English professor, became hooked on the sport herself, something that endeared her to several W&J football players in her class.

"She had a way of connecting with me and making me learn," said Brian Dawson, 22, the team's quarterback, who graduated with a business degree in the spring. "You're supposed to remember your great teachers, and she was one."

"We got her to understand football," he said. "She got us to understand Shakespeare."

Sometimes star power is a draw. Students in the "Introduction to Computer Networks" class at the University of Pittsburgh may have seen their professor, Marlin Mickle, in publications like BusinessWeek. He is a leader in efforts to create a kind of microchip that may render the bar code obsolete.

At Penn State, Cathleen Moore understands the science of psychology, but said many in her big introductory psychology class arrive simply wanting to know "Why my friends do the things they do, why relationships don't work out, why my parents are so weird."

She keeps her 370 students interested using things like clips from old "Candid Camera" shows.

Her colleague, Andrew Peck, goes even further with an unusual tactic to wake students up for early morning lectures. Before one Friday class, he was the guy standing atop the desk, arms folded into the shape of a basketball rim, so his class could score points using beach balls he distributed.

The balls disappeared once the lecture on Freud began, but not the references to shows such as "Seinfeld," in which Jerry was an example of Freud's "ego" theory; Elaine was the "superego" and Kramer the "id."

"Who knows what's going on with George?" jibed Peck, a senior lecturer, as the students broke into laughter.

But the secret to reaching students may not be instructional style or even classroom polish, said one professor, Klaus Kipphan, who teaches Juniata's Holocaust course. Emotion, he said, is what reels in students.

"They say, 'If it's so important to him, if it turns him on, then there's something to it,' " Kipphan said. "Students are touched by passion. That's how you connect."

At WVU, Renton is known for that. He shuns PowerPoint and most other glitzy teaching aids, using nothing more high-tech than a magic marker and an overhead projector.

Early in his career, when his own index-card lectures left students cold, a professor from his college days offered advice that stuck. He told Renton a good teacher is an actor, and that he should rehearse until he didn't need the index cards.

To this day, Renton refuses to recycle old lectures in a course he's taught for 39 years. So at 7:45 a.m., when the only sound in White Hall is the hum of a lobby soda machine, he heads for his fourth-floor office for a decades-old ritual.

He locks the door behind him, drops into a black swivel chair and, for nearly two hours, just talks to himself as he rehearses that day's lecture. After his 9:30 a.m. class, he tweaks the wordings and delivers it again at 11:30 a.m.

Why, he asked while rehearsing his earthquake lecture, did the Greeks build so many columns?

"The Greeks, as sharp as they were, were never able to overcome the inherent weakness of rocks under tension," he said.

Renton, originally from Beadling, a former mining settlement in Upper St. Clair, has won various teaching honors, including a 2001 Carnegie Foundation/CASE Professor of the Year. But he swears he still gets nervous before entering the lecture hall.

"I think it's what keeps you young," he said. "If you don't have butterflies when you walk into the classroom, it's probably time to get out of that classroom."

Wheeling Jesuit University
Criminal Justice-340, "Critical Issues in Criminal Justice"
Professor: Larry Driscoll

Some professors anguish over making their subject relevant, but Larry Driscoll has the opposite problem. Early on, he feels duty-bound to warn his students not to go overboard in applying what they hear in class to their personal lives.

That's because no one can become an expert in lies and detecting them in a semester's time, and even if one could, there's a danger. "If you use this with friends, you may not have friends. You may hear what they are really saying to you," he says. "Especially if you use it with your mate or with your teachers or your parents."

The truth is, we all lie. If we aren't stating outright falsehoods, then we distort or conceal facts for various reasons. It's a part of the human condition that few spend as much time thinking about as Driscoll, 55, a polygraph expert and an associate professor at Wheeling Jesuit who has built a popular course around the subject.

His "Critical Issues in Criminal Justice" class includes several regular criminal justice topics. But at its heart is a study of all aspects of deceit, its impact on society and the ethical questions involved. Is a lie, for instance, ever justified?

It's purely an elective course. No major requires it for graduation. Yet enrollment that was supposed to be capped at 25 this fall wound up at 34.

Many sign up looking for insights that can give them an edge in dealing with others, Driscoll said. And who could blame them for wanting such protection, given research suggesting that the average person tells 13 or so lies a week?

The students analyze words and scrutinize body gestures, such as moving a hand to the back of the head, which might suggest unease with a question. But the real "aha!" moment often comes not from those tips, but when the students realize how pervasive lying is and how often they themselves are offenders.

"It's those moments of self-awareness," Driscoll said.

Bo Pritts, 20, a junior from St. Clairsville, Ohio, said he's already having those moments in class. "I'm thinking about all the things I've said to other people. Have I caught myself in any lies?"

Driscoll's course is a fast 50 minutes. Dressed in jeans and a bright red shirt on a recent morning, he spoke in rapid-fire sentences and dipped deeply into his own experiences doing polygraph work for lawyers, police and private employers.

Students read and analyze statements made in real criminal cases and hear famous remarks by politicians, who Driscoll said offer endless grist for the course.

The students' first assignment was writing down on paper what they did all day before going to sleep on New Year's Eve. The amount of detail was left up to them. As the students decided what to share about their experiences, the challenge became: What would be omitted? What facts would be distorted?

"I know I failed," MaryAnna Burns, 21, a senior from Arvada, Colo., said with a laugh. "I lied."

Duquesne University
Music-121, "Dalcroze Eurhythmics"
Professor: Amanda Ford

Amanda Ford's class at Duquesne University is anything but ordinary. For starters, there are no chairs or desks. There's no lecture to take notes from and no handouts to read.

Oh, and shoes -- nobody wears them. Not Ford. Not her students.

They all know that showing up means they will swing their arms like tree branches in the wind, swoop and dive like a ballerina or mimic every arm and leg movement that a partner makes, all while 20 or so classmates watch.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
In Amanda Ford's class at Duquesne University, music students swoop, sway and swing while getting in touch with their inner rhythms..
Click photo for larger image.

"Spread out," she tells the music majors, mostly freshmen and sophomores, all of whom look surprisingly at ease this Monday morning with what they are being asked to do. "We are literally going to move the music."

This, after all, is Eurhythmics, a class devoted to learning music concepts through full body movement. It's best to check your inhibitions before entering Ford's green-carpeted room in the Mary Pappert School of Music.

And be sure your socks have no holes.

The students' movements are guided by tempo, beat and rhythms they are hearing for the first time. Ford, who once worked in Chicago as a jingle writer, ad-libs segments of music on a Steinway or plays a song on the stereo.

"As much as music is this visual thing, notes on a page, it's also a moving experience," said Ford, 34, an instructor. "It's being able to take a piece by Bach and, instead of just looking at it with the score, to move it."

She hopes her students become more comfortable with their bodies, a good skill for stage performers. But the course also seeks to give those using music in various ways, from instrumentalists to composers, a new way to understand the emotion behind the sounds.

"As a tuba player, I've always been able to play the music through my head. Coming here and having to put it in my whole body is a completely different experience," said Tim Ayer, 18, a freshman from Vernon, Conn.

The approach was created by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, a Swiss musician and educator born in 1865. In Ford's class, students are asked to write down the music played for them to demonstrate that they are able to translate into musical notes what they are hearing and moving to. As a final project, they use what they have learned during the semester to compose their own piece of music.

Success is tied less to ability than risk-taking. To encourage them, Ford performs movements with the students and heaps lavish praise on them.

"I think my students go though an initial period of surprise and shock ," she said. "But after you get through that first layer of inhibition, your guard starts to let down and you start to have -- dare I say -- fun."

Most, like Kristen Foster, 18, a voice performance major who hopes to become more relaxed on stage, said she's gotten over those initial jitters about moving around in front of strangers.

"You come here and kind of forget it's a class," she said with a laugh. "I have no inhibitions anymore."

Juniata College
History-401,"The Holocaust"
Professor: Klaus Kipphan

Students in this Juniata class went looking for monsters this fall and found something more chilling -- upstanding citizens with families, typical in many ways, except that they willingly took part in the torture and slaughter of millions of Jews.

"Monsters we recognize. Monsters we can keep apart from. But these were normal people, and that scares us," emeritus history professor Klaus Kipphan said. "Could we commit similar crimes under similar circumstances?"

It's the sort of uncomfortable question that makes his wildly popular seminar course, "The Holocaust," as much a study in human nature as a history lesson on one of the century's darkest periods.

Kipphan, 63, a German immigrant born in 1940, was a toddler during Hitler's Third Reich. He has spent nearly 20 years taking students, 15 or so a semester, on an eye-opening journey though a part of his culture that causes him great anguish. So much so that it figured in his decision to continue teaching the class in retirement.

A seat in the upper-division class is so coveted on the 1,350-student campus that some students start rearranging class schedules their freshman year hoping eventually to land a spot.

"I begged him to let me in," said senior Scott Noerr, one of 16 students gathered one recent Thursday in a sun-splashed seminar room on the quiet Huntingdon campus.

Part of that demand is no doubt the topic, a seismic event that Kipphan calls the No. 1 crime of the century. But the draw also has to do with the professor himself, a passionate man with white hair, glasses and a thick German accent.

Many of the seats are filled by non-history majors, from education to pre-medicine to accounting. They explore the subject from myriad angles -- victim and perpetrator, women and children, and how Germans and others have dealt with the Holocaust.

The readings and research can be unsettling. Students are left to fathom how commandants at such places as the Treblinka extermination camp could brutalize by day, then go home at night to their wives and children. They are left to ponder those who tried to save people targeted as part of Hitler's Final Solution, while others did nothing.

The emotion of the course can be felt in some of the students' voices. "It's so hard for me to understand how people can do this to other people," said junior Kate Scanlan, 20, of Ebensburg.

Kipphan said it's hard to stop teaching the class when so many students seem genuinely interested. But he feels another, more personal obligation.

"I cannot shy away from dealing with this very, very seedy and negative part of my culture," he said. "If you're proud of Beethoven and Bach and Mozart, you have to feel aggrieved over what, in the name of that culture, was inflicted on minorities."

Carnegie Mellon University
Business-952, "Business Acting"
Professor: Geoffrey Hitch

As MBA classes go, the course requiring Ted Curran to read from a script looked like a breeze -- no numbers to crunch, no complicated business concepts to digest.

Of course, it did mean he had to get on stage and perform the role of a woman as his classmates at Carnegie Mellon University watched. His portrayal of Ann in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" was a bit of a stretch for a guy who weighs 185 pounds, lifts weights four times a week and claims no acting experience.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Associate drama professor Geoffrey Hitch, above in foreground, helps MBA candidate Richard Morris with his monologue from the Bill Murray movie "Stripes "during Hitch's Business Acting class in Carnegie Mellon University's Graduate School of Industrial Administration.
Click photo for larger image.

But he was game for the challenge, even laughing as he explained what he believes it will do for his ability to perform in the financial world.

"It's a different sort of preparation," Curran, 28, of suburban Philadelphia, said of the class in Business Acting.

The unusual elective in Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration, taught by Geoffrey Hitch, began 11 years ago as a single section, but as its popularity has grown, up to seven additional sections have been added.

Knowing how to convey an image or emotion at just the right moment can define success or failure, even in a world of nose-to-the-keypad accountants and corporate analysts. Some students hope to overcome shyness or awkwardness and perhaps pick up some empathy by thinking about what it's like to be someone else.

"A lot of them don't interview well or don't feel they can run a business meeting well, and it's all very frustrating because they are all really terrific analysts and numbers people," said Hitch, 52, an associate drama professor.

Out in the work world, those students may find that having the best idea means little if they can't express it in a compelling way.

The course is a classic example of left-brain meets right-brain learning, the sort of interdisciplinary work prized at Carnegie Mellon, whose campus has built robots for NASA and sent award-winning actors to Hollywood. The course runs seven weeks, and students completing it tackle character analysis, improvisation, dialogues and ultimately, monologues.

Playing against type is a key feature of the course. Someone shy is often steered toward an extroverted role. Others who dominate a conversation might be asked to play a shy character.

"I tell them I will not ask you to do something demeaning or ugly, but I may ask you to do something goofy," Hitch said.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
CMU's Hitch won't ask a student to do anything demeaning, but "I may ask you to do something goofy.".
Click photo for larger image.

Each performer gets a detailed critique and plenty of encouragement from Hitch, a Carnegie Mellon alum who came to campus from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He scribbles notes onto a yellow pad as he watches from several rows up in the theater-style classroom.

Nobody yet has landed on Broadway, but that's not why they enroll.

"If I can do something as extravagant as acting, then a business presentation is no problem," said Tracy Tain, 25, of Shanghai. Besides, she added, "So many of my classmates recommended this class, saying 'It's wonderful. You have to take it.'"


Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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