College is often described as a time of runaway hormones. Endocrinologist Ronald Cohen wants University of Chicago students to understand the important job those hormones play in the human body.
"Endocrinology is so important for who we are," said Cohen, Associate Professor of Adult and Pediatric Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism in Medicine. "It relates to metabolism, growth, reproduction, all sorts of really important things on a day-to-day basis. It's just a really exciting field, and that's one of the things I want to get across when I teach students who have no experience in the subject."
Cohen's advocacy for hormones is clearly drumming up interest around campus. Since expanding a single course for undergraduates to a three-course track six years ago, Cohen and his fellow teachers have seen their class lists balloon from 20 students to more than 100. Attracting both students with plans for medical school or laboratory research and even some students from unrelated majors, Cohen has turned a specialized field into a topic of broad appeal.
"Some students are just interested to understand how their own bodies work," Cohen said. "I think some people, even if they don't want to go into biology or medicine, find it to be a fascinating subject on their own and so decide to take the course."
That diverse range of students benefits from Cohen's approach to teaching, which he emphasized is less about rote memorization of facts and figures and more about learning how to apply knowledge. Mixing in research papers, case studies, patient testimonials, and images, Cohen said he tries to give students perspective on the role hormones play in the body, both when they are functioning properly and when they go clinically awry.
A visitor to the class might stumble upon a lecture hall full of students groping their necks, searching for their thyroid gland – Cohen's favorite organ of the endocrine system. Or they might be viewing pictures of a patient who suddenly developed a mysterious darkening of the skin – a telltale sign of adrenal insufficiency.
"I don't want them to memorize clinical facts, I want to show them that if something goes wrong with a basic developmental or biological process, how that can influence real people," Cohen said. "It's nice to show them right up front something like where their thyroid gland actually is to make the basic science seem immediate and important."
Ironically for a teacher of undergraduates, Cohen himself did not take a course in endocrinology until medical school. A math major at Harvard University, he earned his first teaching experience as a teaching assistant for undergraduate calculus classes. Medical school at Cornell University and residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston further refined his educational talents. "In medicine from the very beginning, you're constantly involved in teaching," Cohen said.
After joining the University of Chicago Medical Center faculty in 2000, Cohen began teaching endocrinology to medical students a handful of times a year. But eager to return to undergraduate teaching, Cohen worked with fellow faculty members Matthew Brady (a 2007 Quantrell recipient), Helen Kim, Yan Chun Li, Mark Musch, and Andrew Wolfe, to create a three-course menu of endocrinology, spanning from cell signaling to physiology and pathophysiology. Cohen said teaching his undergraduates is a fulfilling change of pace from his duties in the clinic and laboratory.
"One of the real joys of teaching undergraduates is that the students have really chosen to take our course. They truly are interested in the subject for the subject's sake," he said.
And Cohen emphasized that the opportunity for medical faculty and undergraduates to interact was a special benefit of the Medical Center, medical school, and main campus sitting in close proximity.
"The University of Chicago has a unique situation that actually enables people in the medical school to get involved in undergraduate education, which I think is great for both parts of the University," Cohen said. "I think it is important for the undergraduates who are interested in these topics to get additional perspectives on the field, and I think it's important for us, because it's fun to teach the undergraduates. It's a bonus of working at Chicago to be able to do that, and I've just really enjoyed it."
It’s fitting that when Darby English, Associate Professor in Art History and the College, describes his approach to teaching, he thinks not of a word, but of an image.
He likens his approach to “whatever the opposite of a pyramid is. I try to be at the bottom and shape things as they emerge.”
For English, an important part of leading an effective discussion is “knowing when to get out of the way,” he says. “In a situation where the center of the lesson is an object, say, a work of art or a text, it makes very little sense, or the wrong kind of sense, for the teacher to be the principal force in the room. The object should be the motivating factor.”
English says he particularly enjoys courses where he can teach in the presence of art, whether in a museum or elsewhere in the city. “That kind of teaching never requires me to contrive my way out of the driver’s seat. It’s obvious what the authority in the room is, and it’s clearly not me. I’m there to help us clear paths to the object, which when approached this way, can focus and animate looking and learning in ways I find almost indescribably exciting.”
During a recent session of his course, “Modern/Postmodern,” English deftly evaded students’ attempts to give him the last word.
As the class parsed a dense critical essay, one student called for a timeout. “Is [the author] a modernist or a postmodernist? Which side of the fence is he on?” Then he turned to English, as if for a ruling on the matter.
“Good question,” English said. “But who am I to decide this?” Instead, he turned to another student. “Luis has an answer.”
English, who studies modern and contemporary American art, says this kind of evasion is tactical and deliberate. “The students and the material are in a conversation that I advise. One way for a discussion-oriented class session to succeed is by my effectively disappearing into the conversation for a time, rather than always being the figure to whom everything defers.”
He is equally reluctant to identify a fixed set of pedagogical tools on which he relies.
“This may sound terribly unprincipled, but I improvise my way through most discussion-oriented courses. Because I really do believe that there are as many classrooms as there are course meetings. I find lesson plans and suchlike to be a hindrance rather than a help,” he says. “Preparation, for me, means time spent looking at or reading as closely as possible the objects I’m going to teach.”
English admits he was initially more interested in scholarship than in teaching when he embarked on an academic career. “It was by sheer accident that I discovered I could enjoy being a teacher,” he says.
“And already the best thing for me about working at Chicago is the undergraduates that I teach,” he says. “Without question, they’re the best part. This came as a complete surprise.”
Before she teaches, Wendy Olmsted has a routine. “I stop at the library and get coffee. I walk very calmly and look at the trees. I don’t want to think just then. I just want to get a sense of focus.”
By the time she walks into the classroom, Olmsted, a professor in the New Collegiate Division, feels relaxed and ready to tackle the material — whether it’s the Odyssey or a Jane Austen novel. She finds it easy to lose track of time while teaching. “Once I get going, I’m a little monomaniacal,” she admits.
That quality has served her well in the past—on one particularly memorable day early in her teaching career, political protesters walked into her classroom. “Surprisingly, that did not bother me,” Olmsted remembers. “I just kept going.”
Olmsted found inspiration for her career as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, which emphasized a balance between faculty research and teaching. There, Olmsted says, “I discovered critical thinking.” One professor in particular, Sandra Berwind, “confronted us with difficult questions and had us struggle with these texts. I just never questioned things as much as I did in that class. I had never been in such a lively class. I had never thought so much.”
Her first teaching experience was “sheer terror,” she says. “I wasn’t so much older than my students.”
But in time she grew more comfortable, a change brought on in part by learning from and teaching at UChicago with James Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought; Herman Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities and the College; and renowned literary scholar Wayne Booth. “We did challenge students to think about difficult issues—we didn’t just teach content. I was hooked from that moment on,” says Olmsted, AM’66, PhD’74.
Olmsted continues to emphasize critical thinking and encourages students to challenge the conventional wisdom on a given topic. In her Greek Thought and Literature classes, she often has several students who come prepared with historical facts, certain they can settle all debates. Yet she aims to push them away from their sense of certainty.
“My whole approach is to generate arguments on different sides of a question. But I want the discussion focused,” she says.
“I use lectures at the beginning to open up lines of inquiry. I get students to make claims using evidence in the text,” Olmsted says of teaching Greek Thought and Literature. She also occasionally lectures in the middle of class “to help gather up the threads.”
To keep discussion on track, she uses a simple technique. “The first thing that is so important is to listen. You need to have a sense of the strands [of discussion] and how they’re developing.”
When everything goes right, “the discussion goes back and forth between making claims and digging for evidence in the text.”
For Olmsted, nothing is quite like a discussion that opens students’ minds to new possibilities. “I like the excitement of discovery,” she says.
In order to be a successful teacher, Stephan Palmié says he has learned to challenge students’ preconceptions—beginning with one of the foundational episodes in American history, the story of the Pilgrims.
In his course, “The Anthropology of Food and Cuisine,” Palmie, Associate Professor in Anthropology, Social Sciences, and the College, shares with his students a new take on the colonists’ first years at Plymouth. The tale of brave non-conformists fighting for religious freedom who made friends with Indians is only half of the story, he contends.
Squanto, the Indian who helped the Pilgrims grow corn and make peace with nearby Native Americans, actually had just returned from years of captivity in Europe, only to find his tribe wiped out by epidemics that Europeans had introduced, Palmié explained. “Having few loyalties to either party, he put his linguistic and bi-cultural skills to use in setting himself up as a political operator.”
In the end, Squanto was unable to broker a deal between natives and the colonists. But Palmié said Squanto succeeded in helping the Pilgrims modify their diet, “a fact that has earned him a role, however problematic, in this nation’s founding ideology, which is why turkey and succotash figure in contemporary American Thanksgiving dinners.”
Palmié’s classes are organized to maximize participation and encourage students to think in new, critical ways, as Palmié reveals what lies behind some of society’s accepted realities.
“I tell them that what we accept as truths is really based on a prior social consensus about the consequences of such truths that people are willing to live with,” he said.
For example, although everyone now agrees that slavery was a cruel institution, probably few students in Palmié’s classes had prior knowledge of how deeply it was enshrined in American institutions before the Civil War and what surprising connections it continues to have on everyday lives.
Insurance was an industry that grew up with slavery. Modern actuarial tables that establish the value of a person’s life were inventions of the 19th century, when they were used to compute the worth of slaves, Palmie points out.
Driven by a philosophy that students learn when provoked by new experiences, Palmié includes a visit to an ethnic restaurant as a requirement in his course. A German native who conducts ethnographic and historical research on Afro-Caribbean cultures, he makes eating an unfamiliar meal an assignment in ethnography.
“Try to use all of your senses in this project,” Palmié tells students. “Your field notes should be as specific and detailed as possible.” He advises research ahead of the visit on cooking methods and ingredients.
The experience is meant to be a serious effort to document the food as well as record how the taster related to it. “Did you like the dishes?” Palmié asks his students. “Why? Was it the flavor, texture or color?”
Food preferences are no more obvious or universally programmed into humans than peoples’ everyday choices. What might be totally acceptable in one culture, like Chinese sucking on cooked chicken feet, could be totally repulsive in another.
By provoking his students to be creative learners, Palmié guides them to be critical thinkers. “I want to provoke their curiosity to get them to intellectually engage with the subjects under discussion.”
Sometimes Anne Rogers’ students surprise themselves.
“I can write a thousand lines of code now. I never would have guessed that I could write a thousand lines of code,” one student wrote in reviewing Computer Science with Applications 2, which Rogers taught during the 2010 winter quarter.
When Rogers, Associate Professor in Computer Science and the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, read those words, she thought, “Yes! That was the goal.”
Such teaching prowess has earned Rogers a 2010 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. She is the fourth Computer Science faculty member to receive the Quantrell Award in the last five years, following Stuart Kurtz (2009), Janos Simon (2008), and László Babai (2005).
“Teaching is important to me, and it’s nice to be recognized,” Rogers said. “I am really thrilled.”
Recent Quantrell recipients in Computer Science all make their students work hard, she said. “The challenge is always to find that sweet spot between getting them to work harder than they thought they might be able to, but not so hard that it’s just insane.”
Enthusiasm is also important, Rogers said. She regards Jon Bentley, one of her undergraduate professors at Carnegie Mellon University, as a yardstick of her own performance in this respect.
“If I could be half that good, I would be happy. He was a fabulous teacher. He transmitted enthusiasm. He didn’t just convey it. You walked out of the room excited about what he was doing.”
She learned another important teaching lesson from Robert Sedgewick, a colleague at Princeton University. “He hammered into me that you always have to remember that details are important, but the big picture is what you really want them to walk away with,” she said.
Rogers taught at Princeton for six years after receiving her doctorate from Cornell University in 1990. Then she conducted software systems research at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., for five years before joining the UChicago faculty in 2002.
This quarter Rogers is teaching Networks and Distributed Systems, which includes both undergraduates and graduate students. Chicago undergraduates know Rogers from a variety of other courses as well, including Computer Architecture, Introduction to Computer Systems, and Computer Science with Applications 1 and 2.
The latter courses are designed to introduce computer science to students majoring in quantitative fields. All of the assignments are based on problems from fields other than computer science. “I think every student at this university needs to have a course like that,” Rogers said.
What she likes most about teaching is “the opportunity to nudge students in a direction that is really positive.” She experienced how positive her influence could be as an assistant professor at Princeton. Rogers had told a computer science major, “You’ll be boring,” if he didn’t take some humanities courses to supplement his technical training.
The student went on to take Japanese, minor in East Asian Studies and spend a year in Japan as a Fulbright Scholar. The incident taught Rogers to be careful when talking to students. “They actually listen,” Rogers said.
Posted on: Friday, June 4, 2010 - 3:00pm