Mad props in the classroom

Wake up, eat breakfast, watch your professor physically assault your favorite cartoon character, learn philosophy from Spongebob, converse in Spanish with a talking raccoon, grab dinner, do homework, go to bed. This would be a typical day at Williams College. In order to spice up their lectures and ensure that students absorb important material, a number of professors teach their classes with the aid of various props and toys, and the resulting lessons can be zany, absurd and above all, absolutely unforgettable.

Bobo dolls: Batman, Powerpuff Girls, Scooby Doo

In one memorable lecture, Steve Fein, professor of psychology, uses a Bobo doll – a large inflatable doll designed to bounce back to an upright position when it is knocked over – to teach students about a famous study by Albert Bandura. In the original study, experimenters assessed whether children would imitate the aggressive behavior of an adult. Fein’s Bobo doll does not fare any better than the one in the study. “I beat the hell out of the thing!” he said, adding that he’s been attacking Bobo dolls throughout his career, and that he got the idea from one of his own professors. Fein owns several Bobo dolls, including a Batman doll (his best doll, he says), a Powerpuff Girls doll and a Scooby Doo doll. As students watch, he shouts, leaps, dives and absolutely pummels the unfortunate toy. “I add some more athleticism, you know, diving across the room and things like that, it makes for a good finale to the lecture,” he said. “Years later, students remember the Bandura study because they see their professor jump around like a lunatic!”

Pepito: the only raccoon puppet fluent in spanish

Spanish 103 would not be the same without Professor of Romance Languages Gene Bell-Villada’s trusty raccoon sidekick, Pepito. For the last 30 years, Bell-Villada has been using this lovable puppet to teach students how to properly use certain Spanish verb forms such as indirect commands and the subjunctive. Bell-Villada also has students address him formally but address Pepito informally, which is also good practice for the new Spanish speakers. According to Bell-Villada, Pepito is much more than just a prop, he becomes a member of the family. “Students come to like Pepito. They enjoy holding him and stroking him. And, of course, he’s funny!” Bell-Villada went on to say that in class, Pepito becomes “like a silent pet.” Pepito makes his appearances in class almost every week, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to talk it up with the students. Nothing says “¡Hola!” like a talking raccoon.

Anything entertaining: ping-pong balls to scary toys

Steven Gerrard, professor of philosophy, is somewhat gentler with his props. In his introductory class, Gerrard has used a different toy each year for the past 18 years to teach David Hume’s theory of causation. The first time, he said, he used ping-pong balls and tape, but in more recent years his lessons have included various toys from Where’d You Get That!? such as a talking Spongebob doll and a “Mom-O-Matic,” which, when you press a button, says different motherly phrases. Gerrard’s students always enjoy his use of loud, entertaining toys in class – well, almost always: “I used a screaming monkey toy one year, and at the end of the semester when the students filled out their blue sheets, one girl wrote only that she really hated that monkey and wanted me never to use it again!”

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