The ON Switch PHOTOS BY AARON CONWAY
FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH ALICE DUNCANSON
is shorthand for the work of our educators, just as learning is a simplification of what happens when a student experiences the mind awakening when being taught. Inspiration and revelation sound too magical, but university educators are aiming much higher than the passing along of information. They’re bringing all their skills into play to generate a transformation. To upgrade young and avid consumers of information into responsible and nuanced critical thinkers. Preparing them to develop the disciplined habits of judgment, questioning, and the humility to listen closely and identify their own assumptions. It’s all in a day’s work.
“IF WE FEEL WE’VE GIVEN EVERYTHING WE CAN AND INVITED THE AUDIENCE TO EXPERIENCE THAT AS WE GO THROUGH THIS TOGETHER, THAT TO ME IS A SUCCESS.”
Philip Rudd Assistant Professor // Director of Orchestras Music, Women’s and Gender Studies 2017 – Present “Doing the thing” together University orchestra is a special time for musicians — whether they’re going on to become professional musicians or play in community orchestras, or whether they’re going to be patrons and supporters of music. The special context of the university orchestra is unique, being with the same cohort of students and teachers for eight semesters and the sense of community that is built through that. We’re all doing the thing together. Looking for satisfaction in art As artists, we live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. I tell my students that nobody goes to a concert
to count wrong notes, and nobody leaves a concert saying, “Wow, that was great; they played all the right notes.” There’s something else that goes into that — this sense of a full commitment to the act of performance that is tied in with the unity of the group and the emotional content of the music. If we feel we’ve given everything we can and invited the audience to experience that as we go through this together, that to me is a success. “Doing the thing” with greater independence The conductor Benjamin Zander said that the conductor’s only power is making other people powerful. I feel I’ve succeeded in my teaching if the students are doing the thing with greater and greater independence from me. For that reason, very often in rehearsal I’ll stop conducting and let them play and figure out how to communicate. There’s a sense that sometimes, if I just get out of the way a little, their awareness is wider and more open. ISSUE 1 2022
Associate Professor // Black Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies // 1997 – Present Resisting the impulse to get too fancy In Black studies and women’s and gender studies, students have seen really good examples of interdisciplinary research from their classwork and their professors, so they usually want to get too fancy with their own research. They’re going after the right things — topics that have implications for equity, justice, and change, and aren’t constrained by disciplinary boundaries. But we have to guide them to pare down their ideas so they can pull it off. That’s where the magic happens. The thing that makes you get up when you’re exhausted I’ve seen different kinds of hunger for education in every setting where I taught in the past. But at Denison, students are intentionally focused on themselves as scholars and intellectuals in a way I hadn’t seen at other places. There is a substantive presence that shapes the ethos of the Denison students I’ve been privileged to teach — a sense that “I need to understand this to participate in the world.” And when they start making those discoveries, it’s the thing that makes you get up when you’re exhausted. Staying open to the larger purpose I rarely give the same assignment exactly the same way twice. Once I see who the students are and what excites them, I like to build my assignments around the journey of discovery that will take them further than I thought they could go. So when they get caught up in how many pages the paper should be, whether they need to do a bibliography — those moments where they want me to tell them exactly what to do — they forget the bigger narrative. I have to help them stay open to the larger purpose they came for: to be curious and interested in their discovery.
“WHEN I TEACH ASTRONOMY, THE GOAL IS FOR STUDENTS TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE WONDER THAT I SEE IN THE WORLD.”
Professor // Astronomy, Physics, Computational Science, Data Analytics // 2003 – Present A lifelong search for wonder When I teach astronomy, the goal is for students to be able to see the wonder that I see in the world. I want them to go through their lives finding wonder in the things around them. Teaching more than astronomy I had a student once who really wanted a study guide for the final. I said, “I don’t give those out, but I could help you build one.” I explained that the process of seeing the relationships in a large, interconnected set of materials is important, and that students are learning how to learn in this class. He said, “I feel like you’re trying to teach us more than just astronomy here.” He meant it as an accusation, but that was exactly the point.
Better prepared — but more risk averse Denison students have always been very good, but over the last five to ten years, they’re even better prepared and more ready — but they’re also less willing to take risks. I’ve had to make a bit of a shift in how I teach first-year students; sometimes a project needs a little more scaffolding to get them off the ground and running. But by their junior and senior years, they’re much better at independent projects. Seeing the bigger picture I ask all my advisees, “Where do you want to be in ten years?” They usually interpret that as a job. I tell them, “No, not what job do you want. I’m asking, ‘What kinds of things do you want to be capable of? How do you want to be seen by others? What role do you want to have in your communities?’” I want them to ask how the classes they take now and in the future will serve that goal of who they want to become. ISSUE 1 2022
“WHAT ALWAYS TAKES MY BREATH AWAY IS THIS MOMENT WHEN WE’RE LEARNING SOMETHING THAT TO ME IS OLD HAT, BUT THE STUDENTS ARE ENGAGING WITH IT FOR THE FIRST TIME, AND I GET TO WATCH THEIR HEADS EXPLODE.”
Associate Professor // Politics and Public Affairs, Black Studies, Philosophy, Politics, & Economics, Political Science // 2013 – Present Those take-your-breath-away teaching moments What always takes my breath away is this moment when we’re learning something that to me is old hat, but the students are engaging with it for the first time, and I get to watch their heads explode. And they go, “What does make a legitimate government? I’ve been told my entire life that it’s xyz, but now you’re telling me that many societies have successfully organized around abc?” It’s an opportunity to make the familiar strange and have them look critically at our own society and the questions we may not be asking because of the inherited structures we have. Teaching as a utopian endeavor Teaching is an incredibly utopian endeavor, in the sense that I’m not going to know that I’ve succeeded, and neither will my students. But what I really hope is that these students who are going to go forward will ask questions, like who’s being included and who’s being excluded. They’re not likely to remember where those questions came from, but they’re going to ask what they may not have asked otherwise, and then I may have been successful as a teacher. But I’ll never know. Empowering students to make the world a better place One of the things I think is really fascinating about this generation of young people is that on one hand, many of us who are older think of them as being deeply cynical. But once you push through that initial crust, they’re really interested in how to make the world a better place. They crave the opportunity to think about how we fix it.
“BEING A WHITE WOMAN WHO TEACHES BLACK STUDIES AND NATIVE AMERICAN STUDIES, I’M ALWAYS ASKED, ‘WHY DO YOU DO THIS?’”
Linda Krumholz Teaching against “colorblindness” The racial discourse of the ’80s and ’90s was “colorblindness” — the idea that race was over, and we didn’t really need to deal with it. A lot of times while teaching early in my career, I was working against that idea. Students today of all races agree that this is unfinished business that needs their attention.
An ongoing teaching challenge Being a white woman who teaches Black Studies and Native American Studies, I’m always asked, “Why do you do this?” And often, the implicit question is, “What right do you have to do this?” One of the pedagogical challenges for me always is making sure that my classes begin with a conversation about how students feel about a white person teaching the course — what the limits are and how we’re going to deal with that. Just as the students are going to have blind spots and things they’re not as open to, so will I. I always have to have that self-awareness and critical lens.
Relative safety Students today are more open to having conversations about race, but they’re still afraid to talk about it. A lot of what I try to set up in class is relative safety — not to make everyone trust me necessarily, but to help them trust the process of the class and know they’ll be heard and heard fairly.
Teaching judgment Literature teaches us not to make easy judgments — it can really open students up to thinking beyond themselves. By making judgments about characters in literature, students might open new ways of judging and understanding people they meet in life — especially people whose ideas might make them uncomfortable.
Professor // English, Black Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies // 1992 – Present