Saturday, September 03, 2011

"Let the Chips Fall, Mr. Stokes"

Among the teachers I had a Duke, a few were unforgettable. I can remember specific conversations I had with those few. Things they said, in the context they said them, are not far away in my memory, even 45 years later.

Instapundit links to a column by a college professor entitled The Amazing Colossal Syllabus. He reports that he must spoon-feed detailed, written instructions to his students at the beginning of the term on what he expects of them in his reading and writing assignments, that is to say, he has to do a good bit of threshold thinking for his students because they, having been fed on the "thin gruel" of high school education, would be lost if he were simply to assign the books for the semester and require the students write essays on them.

I remember the first day of an upper level American History course at Duke, taught by Anne Firor Scott, a fantastic teacher. She announced a research assignment in words that were few in comparison to the weight of the assignment. It was my first course with her. She was a young professor and already a giant in the department. I had a small reputation as a student, and she knew who I was. I was insecure that first day of class, as usual, insecure about how I was going to do in the course generally and, specifically, about what she wanted on the assignment.

As soon as the class came to a formal end, I approached Dr. Scott and started to politely cross-examine her on the assignment. She cut me off, looked at me directly, and said firmly, "Let the chips fall, Mr. Stokes."

I immediately "got it." Rather than being even more concerned that I didn't know what the assignment was, I was liberated by those words. She wanted me to tell her what I thought about the readings and the subject matter. A large part of my assignment was that I was to devise it. I was free to think for myself. She trusted me. I smiled and said, "OK! Thanks!"

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