Head of the Class

In an age of on-line and experiential learning, why do the four walls of the classroom still matter?
By Danny LaChance

- Laine Bergeson contributed to this story

Professor Joel Samaha
Joel Samaha

An 80-person class. A professor who calls on you even though your hand isn't raised. A moment of hesitation. Your ventured opinion, perhaps a bit unorthodox. And then, when you've finished, the professor's explosive response: “That's the most outrageous thing I've ever heard!"

It may seem like a scene out of The Paper Chase, the classic 1973 film that depicted law school as an exercise in public humiliation. But in sociology professor Joel Samaha's hands, these moments are the stuff of good-natured debate. His students know that behind the mock outrage is a teacher who revels in their idiosyncratic views of the world.

Samaha, who won the University's Morse-Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Award this year, is legendary for his ability to generate debate even in large classes, says Christopher Uggen, chair of the Department of Sociology. As former student Ryan King puts it, Samaha “challenged and compelled us to logically defend our arguments and, in the process, managed to be outwardly disagreeable yet tremendously likable." It was, he says, “a perfect pedagogical storm."

It's the liveliness and intensity of professors like Samaha that make classrooms, at their best, inimitable. Sure, today you can take a college course — or get a college degree—without ever setting foot in a classroom. Virtual classrooms and hands-on internships have become to the twenty-first century what open schools and cooperative learning were to the twentieth: the next big thing.

But all it takes is a quick glance at Joel Samaha's student evaluations to know that classrooms—those storied spaces with four walls, chairs filled with students, and a teacher standing somewhere in the mix—still matter.

In Samaha's classroom, the lights stay on. PowerPoint is banished. (“It's the quickest way to make the classroom irrelevant," Samaha explains. “The students just spend their time copying what you put up there.") And students participate constantly— often using clickers.

Like studio audience members in the popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Samaha's students are frequently asked to respond with these hand-held devices to a case he presents at the beginning of the class.

“Who thinks the police ought to have the right to remove a passenger from a car they legally pulled over without having to give a reason?" he might ask at the beginning of a class session on discretionary power.

Students push a button on the clicker, a computer tallies the results, and, at Samaha's signal, a histogram displaying the results appears on the projection screen at the front of the room. It's more than just glorified hand raising, Samaha explains. Because each student's selection is invisible to peers, the results reflect a greater diversity of views than might otherwise appear in a public show of hands.

This anonymous process bypasses peer pressure, ensuring airtime for unorthodox and even unpopular perspectives. And that's especially important in a large lecture class, says Samaha. With clickers, students are empowered to speak up. They can dissent and, in the end, see that they're not alone in their views.

Socratic-style on-the-spot interactions follow the surveys. Samaha points to a row of students and has each one explain how she or he voted and why. It's an art, he says, playing these responses off of one another.

“All my life, I've been kind of an oddball," he explains. “I have looked at what other people look at, but I don't see what they see."

Making the classroom an oddball-friendly atmosphere is important to Samaha, who is%

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on July 13, 2007 9:47 AM.

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