The spring semester brought the retirements of four longtime faculty members.
We asked them to share their observations about teaching, their Beloit tenure, and life by reflecting on four questions.
Photos by Amanda Reseburg
Marion Field Fass, Professor of Biology
My favorite class is probably Emerging Infectious Diseases, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to microbiology, ecology, and public health. It is a biology class that was first designed for non-majors, but now serves the needs of biology students as well. It encourages students to think about the complexity of factors that influence the spread of microbial diseases, including human behavior, other animals, and the environment, as well as the biology of the microbes. We move beyond the biology of disease, however, to learn how policies can shape environment and health, and how individuals can shape policies to reduce poverty and disease. This is a course where science is applied to real- world issues.
The hardest and most rewarding thing about teaching a course like Global Health or Emerging Diseases is putting together a syllabus. It is like writing a book: it needs a plot line and contributions of various characters, and everything should come together into a memorable whole.
Many of my courses deal with difficult and unsolvable social and scientific problems, like poverty, hunger, and poor health, and it is important to weave in various perspectives—scientific, social, and emotional. A book with a depressing conclusion will haunt the reader for weeks, but a depressing course saps everyone’s energy. I try to give my courses a positive ending by focusing on people and programs that have made a difference or ending with projects in which students take the initiative to reduce the impact of issues we’ve studied.
The most exciting development I’ve witnessed in my field has been the control of HIV/AIDS. In 1991, we talked about controlling immune activity with meditation and visualization; by 1995, doctors were able to stop the replication of HIV with drugs. But many changes have also taken place in the public arena with efforts to make drugs affordable, public health campaigns in heavily affected countries to interrupt mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and international collaboration in global health programs.
How students see HIV/AIDS has also changed dramatically. The movie, And the Band Played On, which describes the first years of HIV in the United States and the government’s denial of funding in the early 1980s, seems like ancient history to my students now. We’ve learned from HIV/AIDS how important it is to fight infectious diseases when they first appear, before they become entrenched in communities.
I hope students will remember that I encouraged them to use graphs and charts and statistics often and well. I hope they will remember me as encouraging and empowering.
A top 10 list of lessons learned from Marion Fass (written by two former advisees) is available here.
Tom McBride, Gayle and William Keefer Professor of the Humanities
What’s remained constant about Beloit is the nature of the students: eager to learn, open-minded about the strangeness of the world, and irreverent about orthodoxies that have overstayed their welcome.
A favorite class was Tradition and Rhetoric, which in the late ’70s I team-taught with some Beloit College legends, such as John Wyatt, Bob Irrmann, Roxie Alexander, and Art Robson. We combined to teach the history and philosophy of medieval and early modern Europe, along with the rhetoric that sprung from these epochs. It was a combined history, philosophy, and writing course. All of us who taught it were obsessed by it and ever joyful throughout its two-year run.
A secret about good teaching that few seem to know is that it must arouse student emotions. Whatever the subject, students need to believe that something crucial is riding on whether or not they learn it. They must desire to know; that desire is, in the end, emotional, more than it’s rational.
The most important development in my field is the rise of literary theory, which has revolutionized how we read and teach literature. Though much criticized, and sometimes properly so, critical theory has allowed English professors to study and teach literature as part of a larger cultural context—something that was forbidden when I was in graduate school. It’s made the pedagogy of literature more relevant and more stimulating.
Roc Ordman, Professor of Biochemistry
Some of my favorite classes are Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. Thanks to equipment from a grant I wrote, a gift from Rush University, and a plasmid with a gene created by a biochemistry alumna, we were able to clone the gene. This was perhaps a decade before other undergraduate schools had these capabilities, and those who completed the class found themselves well-prepared for internships and graduate and medical school. At the end, I always gave a lecture explaining that I felt a bit immoral teaching this material and wondering if humans are responsible enough to manage this kind of biotechnology. So I implored students to use their influence to do good in the world and lessen the damage that can be caused by runaway technology
One secret about teaching is that in science, the half-life of knowledge is about two years. So it is simply impossible to learn very much of what is current, and in a few years much of what you have studied will turn out to be wrong. So during my 37 years of teaching, my primary goal has been to foster enthusiasm for learning, a childlike curiosity, and the creativity to seek new answers. With life expectancy steadily increasing, what is most important to acquire at Beloit is a lifelong love of learning.
An exciting development I’ve witnessed is a change in pedagogy: When I arrived at Beloit in 1977, lecturing was most popular. Labs consisted of cookbook experiments where students were expected to get the right answers. In biochemistry we started doing real experiments using challenging procedures that frequently did not work—more like the actual experience of being a scientist. Twenty-five years later, the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme. Lecturing is wrong, and the professor should stay out of the way and let students learn themselves. I encourage faculty to seek the middle way. Students prefer different styles. Mandating conformity hinders building a diverse learning environment.
I’ll never discard a collection of Round Table articles about my Beloit adventures. For instance, in “Peter, Paul, and Roc,” a student wrote about encountering and then joining my best friend Danny and me singing songs at The Wall. He wrote that he had been feeling really sad all day, but just 10 minutes of singing with us brightened his spirit, and he went off to have a successful day. Singing in classes, around campus, and at talent shows—what great memories!
Renato Premezzi, Professor of Music
I’ve witnessed many changes during my years at Beloit. Many have been stylistic variations of behavior and concepts from one generation to the next. What has remained at a consistently high level of quality is the unique and unpredictable personal expressions and contributions of students, sometimes unanticipated, but always appreciated!
As I pack up my office, I will take some student reports and responses with me (in addition to my music, books, DVDs, and CDs). One is a plot change for an all-music film—proposed by a high school Porter Scholar—that still brings me to tears with its sensitivity, creativity, and maturity.
A favorite class was Film Music, which allowed me to research and share special music by great composers who are often unknown to the general public and whose work is sometimes taken for granted. In preparing for the many years that I taught this course, I devoted a sabbatical semester to lectures at NYU and research plus readings at UCLA where I was allowed to experience the archives and original manuscripts.
Now that I’m not teaching full-time, I’m looking forward to re-reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Many years ago when I was a Fulbright Scholar, I read it straight through in a hotel room in the Italian Dolomite mountains without food or sleep over a couple of days between concerts. Since then, aspects of this great book with its spiritual, philosophical, and supernatural values—including our mysterious relationship to time and the number seven—have accompanied me through life.
Readers are invited to wish Marion, Tom, Roc, and Renato well and share their memories by posting to the Beloit College Facebook wall.