Great teaching and the College: Williams profs discuss the tactics and roles of educators in undergraduate studies

An Interview with Professors Colin Adams, Robert Bell, and Denise Buell.

Why Williams? How does teaching versus research factor into the decision to come to Williams?

Adams: For me, Williams was the perfect mix of teaching and research. Really talented students, really high expectations of teaching. Something I always loved to do was to teach. Before I ever got here that was something I loved to do. Both my parents were teachers, in fact. And yet, to me, one of the things I really like to do is be involved in my discipline, in my field. And that’s an expectation that Williams has for its faculty: that you should both be interested in your students and want to teach the materials, but also to completely involve yourself in it. In order to be a successful teacher, you have to be completely involved in it. Otherwise, how will you possibly get your students involved?

Buell: I have to second that. The reason that I was very excited to come to Williams was precisely the combination of expectation of excellence in research and the support the institution can provide. I think probably being an academic came from a desire to teach, but that, without the research component, it would be empty. While I had a good experience at Miami of Ohio, I knew that the research expectations would be more here than what I got at Miami. I would have more chance to interact with students who would be able to provide me with further inspiration for my own work. And that’s proved to be true.

Bell: This blend of research and teaching is precisely what makes Williams not exactly unique, but in a very small category of schools. The faculty profile, in addition to having a very large proportion of people who are primarily committed to teaching, is unusual in that a great many people are also highly active scientists, researchers and writers, so that if you look at the productivity or the resumes of the faculty, though our writing or research wouldn’t be as notable, as groundbreaking, as say Princeton or Harvard or Yale, it’s quite different from almost any college.

Has there been a shift at Williams from teaching to teaching and research?

Bell: I think older faculty might deny this a little bit, but I feel that there was a quite obvious shift in the ’70s and ’80s so that – teaching continued to be the first love, main priority of almost all faculty – the expectations for research went up. It’s no longer the case that a beloved faculty teacher who has not done much research to speak of is likely to be promoted.

Looking at how you become a good teacher, what were/are the greatest influences on your teaching careers? What would you point to?

Adams: For me, it’s my own departments. I feel like I’m in a department with some of the best teachers in the United States – just incredible people. And I’m just trying to keep up. I feel like I learn from them all the time. I think one of the things that really happens at Williams more so than many other places is the chance to experiment, to try new things, to do new things. People in my department are doing that all the time: really interesting things and I learn from them all the time. I think we have been lucky to collect at Williams College some of the best teachers in the country and they feed off each other. That’s an environment that’s very unusual and we’re very lucky to have created that here.

Buell: For me, I began to learn how to teach through a very rigorous graduate training program, so I was fortunate before I got here to have had a number of opportunities to think a lot about pedagogy. Even though I didn’t have the stand-alone teaching experience until I finished my graduate work, that really helped with the training process. I have found, because I am in a much smaller department [than Math or English], we don’t have the opportunity to sit around and talk much about teaching.

But peers in other departments have proven to be really valuable. That has been enormously valuable for me here in strengthening my teaching. Also, asking the students. Getting feedback from students. Well-placed questions to students have actually been incredibly useful to me. During the semester I actually give questionnaires, ask for feedback, try to figure out if students are learning or not.

Bell: I also came into a department, like Colin, with a very strong tradition of excellent teaching and senior colleagues who were eager to help younger teachers learn how to do it – how to do it better. I had several people who helped me with my writing, visited my classes. One of the seminal experiences I had here was with Larry Graver, who was a beloved, revered teacher. I had the great good fortune to teach a class with him right after I got tenure. The [English department] asked Larry Graver and me to work up an introduction to the novel course. That happened to be the thing I was least qualified to teach. Novels are hard, but nobody is better than Larry Graver. I’ve never seen anybody better than Graver at teaching fiction. And I learned an enormous amount working with him for two or three years in a row on that course. That was one of several mentors I had. It’s just one of the things Williams is so famous for and it helped me immeasurably.

Adams: One of the things I want to add here is that one of the biggest influences for me was the students and the students’ attitude. Coming here from Oregon State University, where I’d teach these large lectures and there’d be people in the back reading the newspaper – you know, it doesn’t push you to do the very best you can do. I came to Williams and the first time I taught a class at Williams there were 30 people sitting in the room and everybody watched me as I walked across the room. And I said something and everybody wrote it down and I thought, “I’m going to have to start thinking pretty hard about what I’m saying, people are paying attention!”

Let’s talk a little bit about ‘the Williams student.’ Maybe there’s nothing unique about the Williams student, maybe there’s a lot. What are your impressions, compared to previous experiences? What strikes you about what it is at Williams that makes the classroom environment unique, from a student standpoint?

Adams: When I describe to people at other schools the difference between how I perceive Williams students versus my perception of students at other places. . .You hear other people complaining about their students, but I never complain about the students. Williams students, to me, are so highly motivated and to me that’s sort of the quintessential attribute that makes it such a pleasure to teach here.

Bell: An intellectual curiosity.

Adams: Right. And they may not have the right background in a particular class, they may struggle for particular reasons, but they’re motivated, so they’re going to do everything they can to overcome whatever deficiencies they have in any class and they’re going to work really hard. Some of them are going to be absolutely brilliant and that motivation is going to allow them to go to the moon. Some of them are going to be highly motivated but not particularly good at a particular area and they’re going to do their best to do well in that class. But the feelings that the amount of effort you put into it will have a positive outcome because of the fact that these students desire so much to learn the material. They’re intellectually curious. That’s the aspect that I find the most satisfying when dealing with Williams students.

Buell: One thing that I notice is the total overall quality of students here is so high that you can do a lot in the classroom and start at a very introductory level and move very far, very fast by the end of the semester. It’s so engaging and exciting.

Bell: The level of morale of Williams students, and of course it’s connected to curiosity and commitment – it’s extraordinary. I find the energy level, commitment and vitality enormous. When you add that to the small college [environment] – the opportunity to have ongoing relationships – I’ve had enormous satisfaction in teaching students in 101 classes and following through: doing some advising for them, and having them again for a subsequent class. It’s a small wonder you have so many ecstatic teachers.

What’s the most difficult thing about teaching? What have you found to be your biggest challenge? And what, in turn, is the most gratifying part about teaching?

Adams: What’s the most difficult thing about teaching at Williams College? It’s to live up to all the expectations that are there: the teaching, the research, the administration. The expectations here are just higher than any other place that I know in terms of just expecting you to do all of these things. Now, I think for me and I think for most people, you thrive in that environment. But it is stressful; it’s a very stressful environment to be in.

Students being so good, they have high expectations, and you want to live up to those expectations. In addition to the teaching, you’re researching in your field, you’re going to these conferences, you’re working on new results and your colleagues in the field are waiting to see what your next result is going to be. And at the same time, you’re doing all this committee work and it’s time and energy. It’s just like the students.

Buell: Around the classroom itself, the most challenging and, ideally, satisfying strategy is if I prepare in such a way that while I’m clear about what kind of learning I hope will happen in the class, I set up a framework in which I am not overly directive about that learning and am able to successfully raise questions or problem points for the class in such a way that not only does that learning get produced by the students in relationship to my questions, but in fact produces all kinds of ideas and insights that I didn’t even anticipate, so that I end up learning from [the students].

The challenge is creating a framework, an underpinning, where if necessary I can rush in and be really clear about what I was hoping would happen, but in fact really go in lightly, lightly, in the kind of guidance I’ve given, to have the learning come out of the students.

Bell: In a way, there’s a kind of iceberg here and only the top part of it is visible when we’re thinking, as most people do, of teaching and what takes place in the classroom at that moment. In order for Denise to be that flexible and effective, she’s, in effect, prepared to give a spontaneous lecture for the entire hour and 15 minutes. And in fact, the other extreme: if she’s getting the responses she hopes for and if they’re building and leading somewhere, then she’s teaching an entirely different type of class. Hours and hours of thought and reflection have gone into those 75 minutes.

Buell: When it works, it’s amazing. That’s what I live for.

Prof. Adams, math and science courses seem much different, obviously, than Div. I or Div. II courses. Because there is more of lecture-type setting. . .

Adams: My life is so much easier! I’m telling you the truth; I could not do what they do. In the few times I have attempted to run discussion, every time it’s a miserable failure. I cannot do that and I’m so glad that I happen to be in an area where I have a certain body of knowledge that I’m going to get across and I know exactly what it is and I run the show. Students can ask questions and that’s great and I have to have enough leeway to be able to go in slightly different directions according to that, but I know what my 50 minutes is and I know how it’s going to go and that makes my life so much easier. It’s a completely different style.

For me, in some sense, the most difficult thing is a bit different. In the sciences, the biggest problem is intimidation; students are very intimated by the material. The goal is to somehow make it inviting, to make them feel welcome, to make them feel like they can handle it, to convince them they can do this, so that they want to do it and they do it of their own free will, as opposed to, “you have to do this problem, you have to do that problem.” That’s the hurdle you are trying to overcome in the sciences.

Because you have to get through a certain amount of material, does that necessarily increase the amount of interaction outside the classroom when students come and say, “I don’t understand this?” Does it force more interaction?

Adams: The way it should work is if a student doesn’t understand something, they should feel comfortable in the classroom saying, “I don’t understand what you’re doing.” I, as a faculty member, should be flexible enough to be able to say, “OK, I’m not going to get though my 50 minutes, I’m going to get through 40 minutes and I’m going to spend 10 minutes going in this other direction because this student and presumably a group of students who haven’t said anything need to know about this particular material.” But it’s much more rigidly defined. There are certainly lots of students who, because of the feeling that they don’t want to interrupt the classroom, will come talk to me during office hours and then you have much more time to spend talking in great detail about things that are bothering them.

Bell: I’d like to pick up a point in answer to the question, “what are the particular demands of teaching.” Also, I think this would be another contrast between Div. III and the kind of teaching and work that Denise and I do – and that’s grading papers. Another part of the “submerged” part of the iceberg that is rarely visible, but I think is really crucial in my field and religion as well, is writing detailed critiques. Evaluating, but critiquing a student’s papers. In a Shakespeare class with 40 students, that’s a lot of work, but it’s absolutely crucial. A teacher needs to convey to each and every student that he’s taking very seriously every bit of writing a student is doing and is reacting, potentially, to anything and everything in a paper. That’s why we get the big bucks and it’s also quite different from the kind of responsibilities that our mentors at graduate school would have where other people do the grading – where TAs do the grading – but we’re grading our own tests and papers.

Adams: And here’s another place where I have tremendous respect for your ability to do this – I think one of the hardest things that I can imagine having to do is grade papers. In some of my courses I have papers that students submit and I read the paper and I get to the end of the paper, and I write, “Good!” And then I think, “well, why was it good?” And then I have to go back through and try to figure it out – and for me it can be incredibly difficult.

Bell: What’s difficult is actually explaining why it’s ‘good’ but not better, for a B+ paper.

Adams: Oh yeah! For me, when I grade, you know, it’s right or wrong; they mess up a fraction here, it’s “dink, dink, dink, dink, dink!” The upper-level math classes become more like [Div. I and Div. II] where they’re doing theorems and proofs and you have to wade through a proof and wading into it can get extremely painful.

Buell: When you see progress over the course of a semester that one student makes based on the comments that you’ve given them, that’s [great]. There’s nothing more dispiriting than spending the time on giving the comments and not seeing the results down the line, too. . .

Last question: You have a new professor, just coming into Williams. You sit down with them at a table. In five sentences or less, give or take, what would you tell them? What’s your advice to a new professor coming into Williams?

Bell: Trust the students, listen to the students. Don’t just literally listen, really listen. In a discussion class, you can make amazing progress by taking seriously the perceptions and observations and not just pretending to listen or listening for a buzzword, but trying to regard and use – work off of – students’ ideas. Sometimes people underestimate the commitment and the capacity of Williams students.

Adams: Be willing to change your game plan, but also be willing to experiment. Try really different, unusual things; I think that can work really well. The other thing that I think happens is people come in here – and it’s actually similar to what happens to students when they come from high school. When students come here from high school they are the number one student from their high school and they’re brilliant. They come in here and all of a sudden they’re average. It’s tough; it’s a big blow sometimes to different people’s egos.

Same thing happens to faculty; they come here and they are the number one teaching faculty at their university or college, they have this reputation of being a superstar, and then they come here and suddenly they just don’t do so well in terms of student course surveys, in terms of results like that. It’s a huge blow and it takes some adjustment. I think teaching at Williams is not like teaching at other schools: you have to be flexible because the results are not the same as you might expect. And I’ve seen the same people who ultimately learn to adjust and do extremely well.

Buell: I just want to reinforce what Colin said about experimentation; being able to try different ways of teaching, not just changing your flow over the course of the semester. Also, deliberately trying out different styles, different modes, because different students learn different ways and you have to figure out what kind of teaching style you have when you first start teaching. You need to not just model yourself after the professors you had yourself.

Bell: I would add a couple of other exhortations to beginning teachers. One would be to prize clarity. Clarity, above all. Students respond to that, need it, you can’t go wrong being too clear. Another is to have fun with it. I think the enthusiasm that we show – just the plain and simple, and the not so simple love of our material – is one of the things students value the most. A teacher shouldn’t be shy of revealing that, even maybe dramatizing it a bit. It’s an important part of teaching – to awaken and encourage their spirit of curiosity and their sense that there’s something new to learn and experience.

Adams: I think sometimes teachers believe or have been taught to believe that the goal in teaching is to get across a certain body of knowledge. The really important thing to realize is that certainly is part of the goal, but the other part is to inspire people about the field and to excite them and to turn them into learners for the rest of their lives, to make them think about it when they’re in the shower, when they’re waking up in the morning, so that they’ll go on and after the course is over it’s still going to be there and it’s going to be something they’re interested in and excited about for the rest of their lives. Sometimes there’s not enough emphasis put on that attempt to inspire and that’s really important to keep in mind for all of us here and elsewhere.

Great. Any closing comments?

Bell: It’s never finished. There’s no prepared course, there’s no prepared program. Freud said that this is one of the three impossible professions. He was thinking of psychoanalysis, the ministry and teaching. I think what he meant was there’s always an infinite amount of work – suppleness, flexibility, there’s no game plan that you can use as a wrap. And that’s intimately challenging.