If there is a hero to this story, it is David Sunquist, a young high school math teacher, who volunteered in the spring of 1962 to teach a handful of students a little bit of calculus after school. But he will remain entirely off stage throughout this tale. Our villain will be Professor Arlen Brown, who played his role, apparently quite willingly, in a heartless system. And, yet it is he who gave me the greater gift — a gift that has shaped my professional life ever since, although it would take a half century before its nature was fully revealed. That realization lies at the heart of what I hope to share in the blog that this story inaugurates. It is a long and wandering story that stretches over many decades, but it contains in embryo almost everything I have learned about teaching and learning.
So let us begin . . .
I arrived at Rice University in the fall of 1962, more naive than it is possible to imagine a student being today. It was the heyday of Kennedy optimism, and I started college with a nagging fear that the world’s problems would be solved before I had a chance to get involved. Neither of my parents had gone to college, and being accepted at Rice meant everything to me. It was my own New Frontier. When I got to campus, everything was fresh and marvelous. In a pre-semester program I experienced one of the fastest periods of intellectual growth that I would ever know, and I began the school years with grandiose hopes and ambitions and with a willingness to work hard. I knew that at last I had found the place where I was meant to be. Then I encountered Math 100.
I had been a reasonably good student in high school, although it was a talent for taking standardized tests, which got me into Rice. But my high school had been the dumping ground of the Harris County school system, a place to put the Chicano students, who the administration was barred by the race laws from moving to the black high schools. Those of us from white, upwardly mobile families, who accidently got caught in the district’s net, were just collateral damage at an institution, designed as more as a holding pen, than a place of education. There was a handful of teachers who tried to bring us as far as they could, but, when I entered Rice, an institution that sucked up most of the valedictorians within a 500 mile radius, I was competing way out of my class.
I did not do all that well in any of my courses that first year. I tried very hard, but I did not understand the rules of the games that I was expected to play. Introductory calculus was, however, a circle of Hell far more punishing than all the others. A rational system of advising would have directed me away from a course, aimed at future Nobel Prize winners, and in a different setting I might have actually learned something the subject that I could have used in later life. Instead, I was dropped in the midst of highly competitive science and engineering majors, who effortlessly soaked up the concepts of calculus and then openly expressed their contempt for those who were struggling. (I am sure that Dante could have imagined a particularly cruel place for the classmate, who would complete the exams half-way through the hour, ostentatiously hand them into the professor, and wait outside the entrance to the lecture hall for us to emerge, so that he could comment on how ridiculously easy the test had been.)
Week after week, I would stare at the front of the class, where Professor Arlan Brown scribbled equations across the blackboard. I would copy a line, and then, after he said “It is intuitively obvious that…”, I would write down the next line. During the first semester a weekend’s work would generally suffice to see the “intuitively obvious” connection between the two statements; the second semester it did not. Only the limited afterschool training in calculus that I had received in high school kept my head anywhere near the surface.
At the end of the spring semester, after a crushing final, I was called into Professor Brown’s office. He informed me that I was right on the edge of failing the course, but, because I had tried, he was willing to make me an offer. If I promised to never take another math course, he would give me a D*, and I would not have to repeat Math 100. I naturally agreed, and I have scrupulously kept my pledge for over a half century. But I left the office with deep shame and a collapse of confidence that have could easily led to the end of my college career.
Over the next several years I slowly recovered. Each year my grades were a little better, and step by step the grandiose illusions that had been devastated in Professor Brown’s course, began to be replaced by a more realistic appraisal of my abilities, based on real achievements. I started to receive more positive feedback from my instructors. I climbed my way to the dean’s list by the end of my undergraduate career, was admitted to a history Ph.D. program at a prestigious university, and eventually earned tenure at a major research university.
Nonetheless, the shame and sense that I was incompetent at math remained for decades. And all those bad feelings poured back one day in the late 1970s, as I stood in line at a liquor store in the town where I taught and realized that the person standing in front of me was my calculus teacher, Arlen Brown. Instantly, a line half borrowed from Casablanca burst into mind – “Why of the gin joints in the world did he have to be in this one?” And, as I learned when I got to my office, of all the universities in the world he apparently had, in fact, chosen to be a “colleague” in mine.
I never felt the slightest desire to introduce myself to my former professor, and I am sure that he had no memory of me whatsoever. But my environment was slightly diminished by the knowledge that someone walked around my campus who had witnessed my humiliation decades earlier.
I at last began to escape the shame at the end of the 1990s, when I became the co-director of the Indiana University Freshman Learning Project. My position involved working closely with instructors from a wide-variety of disciplines, including mathematics, on the places in their courses where large numbers of students had difficulty mastering essential skills. I began to realize my story was really about an inadequate teacher, not an imbecilic student. I would never have been a star at calculus, but I could have learned so much more than I did.
As Joan Middendorf and I began to develop the Decoding the Disciplines approach in this period, I also began to understand how this failure to teach effectively could occur quite naturally. The memory of Professor Brown’s phrase, “intuitively obvious,” helped me to identify with the experience of students struggling in my courses and in those of the other instructors with whom I now worked. His inability to effectively convey the concepts of calculus arose, at least in part, from the very expertise which put him in the front of the classroom. The steps that he was teaching were so obvious to him that he was incapable of imagining an intelligent person who found them difficult. My experience in his classroom helped me to understand how crucial it was to decode the expertise of college professors. The shame of Math 100 was being transformed into an asset, as it helped me, first, to identify with the students, who were struggling in my own courses, and then to better understand why I, as a professional historian, found it difficult to make my subject understandable to them.
* I referred above to receiving a “D.” But, technically, as one can see on the section of my transcript above, I received a “4,” which was Rice’s equivalent at the time.
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