Burger derives creativity, integrates it into the classroom

“Creativity is one of the fundamental elements that transcend the artificial lines that are drawn in the sand in the academy,” said Ed Burger, professor of mathematics, who has recently been named one of three finalists of Baylor University’s 2010 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. The award winner, to be announced next spring, will receive $200,000 plus $25,000 for his or her department, and will spend a semester teaching at Baylor. Bob Bell, professor of English, and Colin Adams, professor of mathematics, have both received the award, in 1998 and 2003, respectively, but at those times, the award did not come with the monetary reward.

Burger’s unique teaching style is well known not only across the Williams campus, but also across the nation, through the innovative middle and high school textbooks he has co-written. He supplemented each written example in these books with a 10-minute video explaining the math behind the example and its solution. “I get e-mails every day from students or teachers [who have seen the videos],” Burger said. “It’s nice to have some kind of impact.”

This innovative teaching style appears in his own classes as well, but in his opinion, doesn’t define them. “It’s not the end result for me to be creative in the classroom, it’s to [determine] what is the most effective way to capture the imagination of the life of the mind,” Burger said.

“[Burger] has an extraordinary presence as a speaker; he could, if he wanted to, be a great entertainer,” said Professor Frank Morgan, Chair of the mathematics department. “He’s decided instead to get the material across as clearly as possible. By choice, he’s determined that the most important thing is clarity. He also makes you feel that he cares about you – those are his two elements of genius.”

“[Professor Burger] cares so much about his students, and that we understand the material,” said Hannah Hausman ’12, who has taken two classes with Burger. “He’s so passionate about what he’s teaching, and he genuinely wants us to learn it. In office hours, even if it’s not about math, he loves to talk to us.”

Last semester, Burger created a class called “Exploring Creativity,” in which three students composed a team, and each team had expertise in math, philosophy, music, or studio art. During the 12-week semester, each team taught the class their subject for three weeks. Outside of class, Burger helped to advise the curricula the students created, but in the classroom, he became a student. “The one thing we don’t have enough of here at Williams is conversations across divisional lines,” Burger said. “We’re all present, but not communicating as much as we can. Once we talk, education pops, becomes alive, explodes.”

“When we walked into our first meeting, we were told we were going to be graded on our imagination,” said Aroop Mukharji ’09, a political science and mathematics double major. “Most of us had never been asked to shed everything and explore a subject in the most creative way possible.”

Harris Paseltiner ’09, a mathematics and philosophy double major, saw the class as a chance to engage in a completely different type of learning than the emphasis on being correct that he has found in most other classes. “From the start, we could stop being perfectionists and just move the pencil on the page,” he said, referring to the first day of the studio art unit. “I started to let go of trying to be good at something and instead just enjoyed it for the process. One philosophy of the class is to learn to celebrate failure – it took the normal curriculum and turned it on its head.”

This lack of specific attention to achieving a final product did not diminish the product’s success, according to Paseltiner. “Focusing on the process created a better final product – We organically discussed things together and drove ourselves to succeed,” he said. Students learned not only about their peers’ work, but also through the process of relaying their own expertise. “I learned more from teaching than I did from being a student,” he said.

“Exploring Creativity … could be taught with any four subjects, as all areas of study have their own creative dilemmas,” said Beth Links ’09, a biology and studio art double major. “The specific things I learned were somewhat arbitrary as compared to the overall ideas about creative behavior.”

Another way that Burger is trying to increase this cross-divisional communication is through the Gaudino Faculty Forum, which he designed in January and is composed of faculty lunches that have been occurring once each week this spring. Each lunch begins with a five to 10 minute lecture by a faculty member, and then “the rest of the hour is reacting, questioning, having free-flowing conversation,” Burger said. Through these lunches, faculty members from different departments have the chance to better understand and learn from each other’s teaching styles.

Approximately 30 faculty members attend each lunch, according to mathematics professor Steven Miller, a regular attendee. “Professors can share what worked for them, and what didn’t,” Miller said. “As a new professor, the lunches have helped me to understand the culture of Williams. I’ve never been at a school that cares this much about undergraduate education.”

The lunches have engendered ideas such as professors exchanging classes for a day and thoughts about how students learn differently in different types of classes, as well as helping faculty members themselves to realize their own creativity. “Many teachers start out [their lectures at the lunches] by saying that they never realized they were creative, but Burger helped them to see that [they are],” Morgan said.

“What I think is most important about being a scholar and a teacher, and Ed is a great example of this, is to not remain static and in neutral gear,” said Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history, who has attended several of the lunches. “What moves you forward and puts the gear forward? And if you are moving forward are you on cruise control? Ed is definitely not on cruise control, and he is encouraging us to come along for a very scenic ride.”

“For me, it’s been one of the greatest learning experiences and has informed, enhanced and inspired my teaching,” Burger said. “It’s breathtaking what we have here – some of the best students, teachers and alumni in the country. It’s just a matter of engaging ourselves in conversation – selfishly, I just want everyone to teach me!”
In addition to valuing relationships between seemingly disparate areas of study, one belief that greatly influences Burger’s teaching methods is that professors should keep evaluating their pedagogy and looking for possible improvements. “People who think we have it perfect should challenge their own thinking – it’s hard to imagine that the [standard classroom format of] an hour to sit down, take notes and discuss is the most powerful way of inspiring today’s minds,” Burger said. “Part of creativity is to see what’s there. At least we might discuss [the possibility of] other models.” He cites ideas including what he calls “stretch/reach” classes, in which students can take a class or two outside of their chosen area of study without a potential GPA consequence, as a “means of encouraging students to take more risks in their education – to explore worlds in which they’re not comfortable.”

Burger is not alone in his quest for innovative teaching at Williams. Numerous professors, both those new to campus and those who have been here for many years, are consciously working towards expanding and changing their pedagogy in creative ways. “Even older colleagues who have been here for decades and are very experienced are constantly rethinking their teaching and approaches in the classroom,” Bernhardsson said, who has been teaching at the College for six years. “That is very inspiring for those who are not as experienced because it demonstrates to us that there is not just one set way of teaching but teaching involves constant change in attitude and approach.”
Morgan, who has been teaching at the College for 22 years, continues adjusting his personal pedagogy. In response to polls indicating that alumni wish they had had more practice with public speaking while in college, Morgan begins each period of one class with a one-minute presentation given by a student on a topic of choice, such as “what is beauty.”

Miller uses creative techniques including a class Gmail account, in which students can anonymously voice concerns to him; running a biweekly math puzzle night, in which he works with students on questions from online math competitions to which he himself may not know the answers; using clickers, for students to vote on the answers to questions and on course content without being put on the spot; having students not only solve homework problems, but also write their own; giving students the option of creating an in-depth project about a topic of their choice; and holding a review session for a 400-level class at the Williamstown Elementary School.

Like Burger, Miller is focused on achieving clarity, and has formed many of these elements of teaching not as a deliberate attempt to be extremely creative but as a way to adapt to the desires and learning modes of his students. “My job as a professor is to convince students that material is worth learning – to help them learn to think – and to educate them in useful skills that will help them in life,” Miller said. He noted how his teaching methods are continually evolving, and being influenced by other professors and students, to achieve these primary goals; for example, he now works to avoid focusing on numerous details and instead to “teach students the broad brushstrokes and some of the details, so they will be able to quickly learn [something new] later.”

Miller’s conscious analysis of his own teaching style is shared by many professors at the College, and may be becoming a more widespread trend of both thought and action. “Williams was always a place that attracted scholars who loved to teach, but the idea that teaching is something we can and should talk about, share ideas about, and collaborate on has grown since I’ve been here,” Engel said. I think more of us are beginning to see that though it takes talent to be a good teacher, that’s only a beginning. It also takes work, open mindedness, adventurousness, a willingness to fail, a sense of playfulness and an interest in reflection.”