Profs take seats next to students

Most students come to Duke thinking about the classes they will take with accomplished faculty, but some of those same faculty members could turn out to be their classmates rather than their professors.

Some faculty take time to pursue studies outside of their own classrooms. Although it may be an unusual experience to sit side-by-side with students and learn materials from a student’s perspective, some professors have found this experience enriching.

George McLendon, dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and dean of Trinity College, has taken first-year Spanish at Duke. McLendon said he found the experience very helpful for him as a professor teaching freshmen.

“I’ve taught first-year students for 30 years, and I thought it would be helpful for me pedagogically for me to be a first-year student,” McLendon said. “It’s always good to remember how hard it is to learn something new.”

This experience also showed him the studious work habits of Duke undergraduate students. McLendon said although he worked hard in the Spanish class, he was not the best student in the class and admired the natural skill other students exhibited.

Taking undergraduate courses also allows faculty to get to know students at a more personal level. Charlie Thompson, director of the undergraduate program at the Center for Documentary Studies, recently bonded with a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The student is interested in Latin America, which is an area in which Thompson has worked for several years. They met in an audio documentary course Thompson is currently taking in preparation for documenting a Duke Engage project on Latin American borders.

Thompson added that he enjoys getting help from other students in the class who are better versed in technology than he is.

“Just because I finished a Ph. D. and have completed the qualifications for a university professor doesn’t mean that I’ve learned everything or that I can’t always add to my knowledge base. I think it’s a wonderful privilege to be in a learning environment,” Thompson said.

Although participating in undergraduate courses can be a great experience for some faculty members, managing both taking classes and preparing their own can be a challenge.

“When I found myself up at 12:30 at night realizing I still had more homework to do—and I had my own classes to prepare for and committees––nothing scared me as much as being prepared for the [undergraduate] class,” said Claudia Koonz, a professor of history, who has taken a beginning Italian course as preparation to teach in Venice.

Some professors who have fellow faculty members in their classes appreciated having such a unique pupil in the class. Although many students select courses to fit their schedules or fulfill their requirements, Shelli Plesser, lecturer of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who has taught Hebrew to current and retired faculty for several years, said older students select courses because they are deeply interested in the subject.

But having a professor or a faculty in class can affect the classroom environment. Sometimes, it takes time for undergraduate students to get used to the unorthodox environment.

“In language classes that tend to be small and intimate, it does change the dynamic, and it takes a while for the undergraduate students to be comfortable to sit with dads or grandmas sitting there,” Plesser said.

She noted that although faculty and professors can bring a valuable perspective to the class, the other students need to relax enough to include them in their community before they will benefit from the experience.

Having professors in class can also increase the pressure on the faculty members who are teaching the course.

“Well, they are so smart you hoped you weren’t boring the socks off of them—that was the challenging thing,” said Francis Newton, professor emeritus of classical studies, who has taught two German professors and one history professor. Newton also noted that the professors seemed to learn differently because they are already very aware about teaching techniques and often learn new subjects in relation to their own.

Despite the unusual situation, both Koonz and McLendon said they would want to take undergraduate courses again. Thompson also said the added discipline of having a class once a week was very enjoyable.

“I think most of us become professors because we love learning—not because we know it all, but because we want to continue learning,” Thompson said.


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