Oberlin Blogs

Teaching chemistry

December 24, 2008

Prof. David Walker ’72

It seems only a few weeks ago that I was trying to get myself psychologically prepared for the start of the academic year, and now suddenly I'm in the last throes of paper-grading. It never fails to amaze me how quickly a semester passes, especially in the last month or so, when everything seems to shift into overdrive at once. Often it's only when classes have ended and I have a chance to take a couple of steps back that I realize there's something magical about the way a bunch of randomly selected students, many of whom have never met previously, has coalesced over the course of a semester into an organic group, the whole of which is much greater than the sum of the parts.

The chemistry of a class is always unpredictable and slightly mysterious to me. Since I teach mainly by discussion, I depend heavily on the students to be interactive. I work hard to achieve an open and mutually supportive atmosphere, but a great deal depends on the students' willingness to seize the responsibility to participate productively. Happily, this semester the gods of the registrar's office showered me with good fortune: I had three groups of terrific students whom I felt privileged to get to know, and who seemed to thrive on the lively interchange of the classroom.


My advanced course this semester was a class in contemporary British and Irish drama. The pace was swift and the challenges considerable: we studied 14 plays, ranging from the hyperrealism of Edward Bond and Mark Ravenhill to the visionary landscapes of Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, from the passionate intellect of Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard to the mordant wit of Harold Pinter and Martin McDonagh. The class was primarily composed of English and theater majors; this is a mix that occasionally doesn't gel, but in this case it proved terrifically energizing as we moved back and forth between textual and performance concerns, benefitting from the various perspectives brought to the table. There rarely seemed enough time to discuss all the issues at hand among this animated group, but that seemed to me a measure of success, since I always think of the classroom as a place where questions should be opened up rather than definitively answered.

One feature of this course is that all the students, whether or not they have any acting experience, are required to rehearse and perform a scene from one of the plays in the week in which we're discussing it. I've occasionally taught classes when, either because of inhibition or inadequate preparation, a particular scene fails to come to life. This semester, however, that was emphatically not the case; week after week I was impressed by the degree of commitment and enterprise in evidence: long scenes impeccably memorized, often rendered in credible accents (not required!), and, most importantly, carefully explored and prepared. The scenes added a great deal to our sense of how dramatic texts make specific use of the medium of performance.

This class is intended to introduce students to the rich and complicated literature that constitutes British and Irish drama of the last 50 years. My hope is that it will also persuade those who don't already to share my passion for the theater. I just heard from one of the students, who stood in line for two hours in sub-freezing weather in New York to get into the last performance of a production of the Sarah Kane play we studied, so that's a promising sign....


My other teaching this semester was devoted to two sections of my first-year seminar, "Crossing Borders: The Mysteries of Identity." As often happens when I teach two sections of the same class, they each had very different personalities, especially at the outset.

The morning section was a rambunctious group right out of the starting gate: feisty, dynamic, occasionally volatile. The challenge was to get them to listen to each other and keep the conversation on track, but they learned to do that expertly and valuably.

The afternoon section was an exceptionally thoughtful and reflective group. Initially they were much quieter, and for the first few weeks I felt as though I was having to do too much to lead the discussion, but after we confronted the issue, they really stepped up and took responsibility for setting the agenda.

Both groups were a vivid reminder of why I love teaching at Oberlin: the students were bright, well-prepared, passionate about what we were studying, and keenly engaged in learning from each other.

Since I blogged earlier about my own expectations for the course, I thought I'd turn the rest of this post over to the students to give you their perspective. I asked them how they'd describe their experience of the program to prospective students, and here's how a few of them responded:










  • Mary: I'm really glad I took a first-year seminar; it ended up being my favorite class this semester. It was a really good introduction to class discussion in college, which I found to be a bit intimidating in my larger, lecture-style courses at first. The curriculum was awesome; I loved every book we read and got to discuss, in depth, questions that applied to the real world and myself. The small class size also helped me get to know the people in my class and my professor a lot more personally.
  • Laura: You can't hide in a class with only a dozen or so students. For some people that's terrifying, but for me that was the beauty of my first-year seminar. In a group so small, everyone's voice matters; in a group of all first-years, it can be easier to find those voices. So easy, in fact, that often some of us would realize our discussions weren't contained by the classroom, that we were sitting down to lunch still talking about the issues brought up in class. For me, that's the mark of a class worth taking.
  • Julia: When I signed up for the course last June I didn't realize that I was signing up for a class addressing many issues I would face outside of the classroom as a college freshman. Now, my friends are getting sick of me telling them during conversations about co-op policy and other complicated, Oberlin-specific issues, "In my seminar today we talked about something just like this!"

    I've found that most first-years are very fond of their particular first-year seminar and enjoy explaining why the seminar they are enrolled in is really the most exciting one offered. I've learned about Genesis and Don Quixote listening to my friends talk about their seminars.

    It is comforting during my busy and sometimes overwhelming first semester of college to sit down with the same fourteen people to discuss texts relating to all of our lives. In fact, I enjoy the intimate setting of the class and the opportunity to meet other first-years so much, I signed up for another first-year seminar next semester.
  • Annika: When considering what classes to take my first semester at Oberlin, I seriously considered dropping my seminar. I am grateful that my advisor persuaded me otherwise. The class has not only challenged me to think about how individuals choose to identify and how society treats them, but allowed me to meet 13 other students also trying to fit into a new community. The readings for this course have been inspiring and the discussions in class thought-provoking.
  • Billy: The seminar program gave me a chance to jump-start my interactions with my peers in a highly intellectual setting. In "The Mysteries of Identity," I didn't expect so many different viewpoints on the material we covered. I found the program stimulating, and it gave me what I needed to hit the flat Ohio ground running.
  • Noelle: I have had more academic growth through this program than with any other I have experienced. I developed bonds with people in my class and made many friends. The discussions and openness of the classroom gave me mountains of confidence to un-selfconsciously speak my mind to my classmates. It also honed my writing skills. I have written some terrible papers but they improved as the semester went on, and it is a skill I will value forever. And finally, I came to fully understand the intimacy of the campus and the support that I can receive from my professor and my peers.




The semester won't be over for me until I finish reading all the final papers, but I'm looking forward to the relative quiet of Winter Term. And, of course, to next semester's classes...

Happy holidays!

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