Classroom wizardry


Despite the presence of two dozen grad students gathered for the Divinity School’s Thursday afternoon Pedagogy and Professionalization Workshop, Swift 106, with its paneled walls and mullioned windows, looked like a classroom where the young Harry Potter would feel at home. The day’s guest—Jonathan Z. Smith, the Robert O. Anderson distinguished service professor in the Humanities in the College—even had the flowing hair and beard of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

Indeed Smith, who coordinates the Religion and Humanities program, approached his topic, “Approaching the Undergraduate Classroom,” with Dumbledore’s wry sagacity. And, like Dumbledore, he told the truth: even after decades of teaching, he still visits the classroom the day before a course begins (“I know what I didn’t know at the beginning, to check to make sure there’s chalk”). And he still spends a sleepless pre-class night rewriting the first day’s lesson plan and perusing the reading one more time. The process “does not get any easier, and it shouldn’t. It’s an awesome responsibility.”

To meet that responsibility, Smith suggested practical strategies: Keep a journal for each course, recording successes, surprises, readings that might work. Keep office hours religiously (and be predictably available at other times in a place where students can join you, “but never be distressed if no one comes”). Remember “the very first rule of teaching: assume nothing; make everything explicit,” because although professors design courses “answering our questions,” students “are listening for answers to their questions.”

For Smith, the challenge of the undergraduate classroom is also its magic: “I want to be with people who shout, ‘Eureka!’ all the time.”

By M.R.Y.

January 14, 2005