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They made the boring interesting. They modeled confidence and competence. Mostly, their individual features of character—especially their forbearance—changed the course of lives. As a group they were simply wonderful.






The act of teaching is one of the most consequential of all communication functions. By the use of the term I mean more than its application to institutional settings.  All of us perform a teaching function from time to time: mentoring others, coaching, and explaining something we know well to someone who wants to know more. Even the choices we make can instruct.  While our influence may not always be apparent, our actions modeled to others give them reasons to learn or occasionally rebel.  But even cultivated rejection of an instructor’s ideas can be positive. Aristotle embraced the study of rhetoric, something his teacher mostly repudiated. To be sure, no one wants the nightmare of a music teacher like J.K. Simmons’ tyrant in the film Whiplash (2014).  For things musical we would probably all prefer someone like the engaging Antonio Pappano, the music director of London’s Royal Opera. His video discussion of Puccini’s Tosca is a model mini-lecture.

                             Times Higher Education

The subject of wonderful teachers came up recently when I asked some of my students to identify an instructor who was a significant influence. The specific subject came up in planning a debate on whether we lose too much by abandoning the classroom in favor of online courses. I was coaching the affirmative speakers, whose formal position was to defend instruction in real place and time. I suggested they provide a few sketches of individuals they had known who made a difference.  Presumably all of us have had moments when a teacher provided a pathway through a subject we had never known.  Interestingly, I got no response: a surprise given New Jersey’s reputation for excellence in many of its schools. Perhaps it’s in the nature of youth to miss what is outside a narrow calculus of personal interests and concerns. At that age many of us were too distracted to notice the gifted people we had been lucky to know.

As a profession, teaching is not a prestige profession. My best teachers—Dawn, Phillips, and others—barely created ripples of recognition beyond the influence of their students. The anonymity of their names belies their competence and abilities to evoke the imagination.  They made the boring interesting. They paid their students the honor of taking them seriously. Notably, their individual features of character—everything from how they spoke to how they how they offered guidance—changed the map of their students. As a group they were simply wonderful.

What many of us forget is that the temperment of a teacher matters.

Schools of education teach future teachers mostly on the premise that this form of communication is a process—and a bureaucratic one at that. There are lesson plans to learn, testing protocols to honor, human development sequences to master, and curriculum yardsticks to know. These benchmarks are needed because teaching younger students usually happens within a rigid structure of state and organizational mandates.  There’s a metric for everything, including how well Johnny should be reading in the fifth grade.

What so many of these strictures miss is that the temperament of an advocate/teacher probably counts for even more. What Aristotle observed about all forms of communicators—that character matters most—still seems valid.  This is more than noting that a teacher must be a virtuous person, though that’s partly what Aristotle meant. Teaching with the right qualities of temperament must embody a degree of passion for a subject being pressed upon the young. Teachers must believe that their subjects matter.  And somehow they must generate the same kind of conviction in a student.

I’ve been lucky to see seemingly stale subjects conjured into life mostly because the instructor performed their own fascination with them. In my case it happened in a Freshman course in elementary biology, a high school course in acting, and college classes devoted to politics and rhetorical theory. The last is surely the ultimate test. Is it possible to be awakened to the deep relevance of rhetorical theory?  I’m here to say it is and it was, when Trevor Melia patiently revealed a world we had never seen. His quiet probes eventually produced a cadre of academics around the country who now work to induce their own classroom transformations on unsuspecting undergrads.

You can probably reverse engineer your own interest in a subject back to a teacher that lit the fire of enthusiasum for a subject that has never died. If so, that piece of your life is their enduring legacy.

2400 Times and Counting


Robert La Follette at an Illinois Chautauqua meeting, 1905  Wikipedia.org
      Robert La Follette at an Illinois Chautauqua                     meeting, 1905                            Wikipedia.org

Sometimes there is simply no good alternative to a lecture that inspires discussion of a complicated idea. 

These days the lecture as a form of communication doesn’t get much love.  The idea of an extended presentation to an audience who should want to know more usually engenders greater enthusiasm in the presenter than the intended recipients. The speaker is almost always in the thrall of their specialty.  But these days auditors are easily unfocused and distracted: often ill-prepared to sustain their attention and set aside their electronic umbilicals.

And then there are weak talkers. In our times if a dramatist wants to paint a picture of an old pedant practically dead on his feet, she can do no better than put him in front of a class mumbling on about some disciplinary canon.  My favorite is an ancient fossil of a teacher in the film Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) prattling on to his young charges who have more important things on their minds.

Educational styles favored in our times emphasize experiential learning which, roughly translated, means learning by doing.  That, along with our visual bias for the presentation of all forms of information (u-tube clips, PowerPoints, iPads and  Smart Boards), works against finding satisfaction in the cumulative power of a well-conceived lecture.

Temple Grandin at a TED Talk, 2010      Wikipedia.org
Temple Grandin at a TED Talk, 2010    Wikipedia.org

Perhaps its my training as a rhetorician, but I retain a lot of faith in a coherent talk as an effective means to both convey ideas, and perform the necessary enthusiasm for them. There is no better alternative to a call for change issued by a preacher or a public intellectual, or an invitation from an academic to greater understanding of a complicated but revelatory idea.  If we’ve been lucky, we can can recall at least a few times when we were hooked into the love of a subject by a passionate talker.  Ideas that may be dead on the page can come to life if they are embodied.

As a form, the lecture is also a meeting of minds in the same space that makes possible the kind of interactivity that often attributed to digital media, but often absent.  I recall a master- teacher biologist in my first year at Colorado State University.  He was a mesmerizing presence, at once amplifying complex ideas while giving them importance with real-world applications.  His lectures on DNA were built around an accumulating swirl of drawings created as he spoke.  The blackboard became a riot of color as he used various colors of chalk to fill in essential details of the Double Helix. His effort and interest were contagious. I also remember another professor at Cal State-Sacramento who could turn a single class period into an intellectual adventure. His lectures and questions seemed to owe something to the kinds of performances we were seeing at the time from gifted actors like Paul Schofield and Michael Caine. This teacher had all the theatrical tools he needed:  a resonant voice, an animated face, and the kind of conversational spontaneity that belied what I’m sure was careful preparation.

In truth, many of us still love good lectures. TED Talks, podcasts, the popularity of massed online courses–in addition to packaged lectures on disk offered by master-teachers–indicate a desire to be the willing captive of an effective presenter.  I agree with Molly Worthen, who recently noted in the New York Times that lectures teach the kind of disciplined communication practices we all need: the twin abilities to pay attention and to actively listen.1  Those who have mastered these skills know the rewards.

What makes a good presentation?  What talents brought millions of Americans out on a snowy Saturday night 100 years ago to hear a speaker at their local Chautauqua?  There’s no formula, but it seems clear that the best presentations allow us to see or understand the familiar with new and deepened sensibilities. They add a greater depth of understanding than we could discover on our own.

My guess is that I’ve lectured to students perhaps 2400 times over the course of a long career. My presentations are usually presented to groups of 25 students at a time: a better setting by any measure than a mass audience of a thousand or more.  Sometimes the presentations go badly, though I’d like to think less frequently these days. And sometimes I flatter myself to believe that I made an 80-minute period –the standard on our campus–fly by.  To be sure, that length is too long by at least 20 minutes. Indeed, a session that misfires in so sprawling a period can make it seem like the clock has simply stopped.  A single session that wastes 80 minutes can be multiplied times the 25 members of a course, totaling 33 wasted hours. Knowledge of those stakes puts a significant amount of pressure on any conscientious instructor.  I think I know how actors feel when they are about to step on stage.

Even so, a presenter on fire with their subject is a sight to behold.  Although the TED Talks format only gives most of its speakers little more than 18 minutes, you can feel the growing momentum when one of them has taken flight with a room of rapt listeners close behind.


1Molly Worthen, Lecture Me. Really.   New York Times, October 18, 2015, Sunday Review, p. 1

Comments Woodward@tcnj.edu