Questions for Peter Anderson, GVSU

Winner of the 2010 Collegiate Teaching Award

By Kathleen Coleman

Your citation mentions a philosophy of “shared responsibility between instructor and pupil.” How does this work?

Peter Anderson I am always a little shocked about what people say about the stuff I do. That point is true about anyone who teaches. I suspect that the reason it was mentioned in the citation was the practice I have with the upper-level language students of constructing the syllabus together. What I do on the first day of class is explain what the course is about, but then lead them through the department’s goals for that level course. Then we negotiate the syllabus, the character of the assignments, whether—if it is the very upper level 400-level class—we’ll have a research paper, and we will talk about what that entails. I believe that that “shared responsibility” is true at every level. The instructor has a responsibility to be prepared, to come to class, and be engaged and enthusiastic about his or her students. The students have their set of responsibilities as well. I think that, if either side in the classroom sees that the other side is shirking responsibility or evading it, that creates a toxic atmosphere for the class. We have a contract with the student that goes beyond the syllabus, that is sort of a moral contract as teachers, and they have their responsibility as students to us.

I wonder what your views are on reading drafts of papers. Is that a practice you follow and how do you implement it or, if not, what do you do instead?

It is a practice I follow. I think draft writing is part of the process of really good writing, and one that’s avoided by students because it’s extra work, and sometimes avoided by instructors for the same reason. I always build it in, so they get a mark for turning in the draft, and their papers are always better for turning in a draft, so I think guiding students in their responsibility or meeting that responsibility for writing—it has to be there. Students are developing internal or intrinsic motivations for good work. I think very few of them come to college with those already built in. They’re used to extrinsic ones, so if I can set extrinsic motivations that then they can develop into intrinsic ones, that’s part of the process of learning how to do research or learning how to read or whatever.

In teaching beginners, how do you overcome your students’ lack of experience in the skill of memorization?

I suspect the problem is with us and not with them, because they do memorize a great deal; they are just not used to it happening in the context of the classroom. So, at the beginning of the year I pass out an expectation survey to set the tone of what I expect from them and what kinds of things they expect from me. One of the questions is always, “Do you know the phone numbers of three of your closest friends? Do you know your own address?”—things like that. They have all memorized something—many, many things. The real challenge is not to get them used to memorizing, but to get them to focus on what they are doing. It is not that they haven’t spent time memorizing; it is that they haven’t paid attention to what they have been doing, they are not aware that they have been memorizing. Memorization is bringing attention to a task, repeating it, and seeking to retain it through attention and repetition. So I try to model that for them, and show them ways to make it more systematic and bring it to their classroom. It is just a question, I think, of showing them a process that works for language and that is borne out by educational research, second language acquisition research. Just to give them the confidence to set their hearts to it.

Have you done some research into what educators say about second language acquisition and being able to apply it to our discipline?

I have done a fair amount, but not by any means systematically or deeply; I have dabbled in it. I have an article coming out that I wrote with a student, Mark Beckwith in Teaching Classical Languages (the CAMWS online journal: vol. 2/1, Fall 2010, pp. 31–52) that deals with some of the language acquisition theory around attention. There is a lot out there; most of it applies to Latin, as much as to anything else. I use it in class. There are theories about reading cognition that students really enjoy, so if I can explain to them what happens with the “garden path” sentence cognitively (such as “the man whistling tunes pianos”), they get a real kick out of that; then I show them that’s what’s happening when they are reading Latin sentences in exactly the same way, just much more easily than in their mother tongue. I think all of those things, if you can get a little bit of a grasp of them, do have a profound impact on the way you relate to the material you’re teaching. I think it brings an intentionality to teachers that is sometimes not always there.

What has been your best teaching experience so far?

I think there are three, and they’re of different sorts. The very best in my life as a teacher was when our first Latin education student, this was three years ago now, called and said she got three job offers out of six interviews. That was great and she deserves them, but it was, like, “Wow, okay, I can do some good here.” That was a pretty high moment. I love working individually with students, so I tend to do a lot of independent studies. There have been many moments during those when you see a student just get something. All of a sudden they just wake up and go “oh,” and you see something fall into place. That kind of discovery moment is fantastic. I have experienced those kinds of moments too, and I love it.

In the classroom it is a little harder. Being in the classroom takes a lot of energy, so I think my best moments in a class actually come out of being really well prepared for it. Very little should happen in the class that hasn’t been thought of before. That is how I always felt, and the intentionality beforehand sort of sets that up, so that there is room for a lot of give and take between the students and each other, as well as towards the professor, but it’s prepared. So my best in-class teaching experience comes out of being really ready for a class and having the students being really ready for me as well. Then fantastic things can happen, and those happen often enough for me to keep going back to class.

And your worst?

The absolute worst ones are when I come out of a class knowing that the class did not go well because I was not prepared. Those feel really crappy, because I have let down my side of my responsibility, so I usually beat myself up over them pretty seriously.

There have been some really funny bad moments. I once had a student throw his backpack at a back wall because he just could not understand that you could have a pronoun and a first person plural. “We the people”—for some reason it was not getting in his head, and he got so angry and violent that he picked up his backpack and pitched it at the back wall and stormed out. Then he was stunned that anyone could be so upset about something. But it really freaked out the other students, so we had to salvage that moment.

I’ve had moments where I feel like I couldn’t hear what the student was saying. This usually happens outside of class. I know the student is trying to articulate something or to ask for help, but I am not able to understand what it is they need from me, and it is not usually because I do not understand what they are saying—I am not understanding the subtext. That is pretty disappointing for me as a teacher, because those are the really teachable moments. A lot of what we do in front of the class is dissemination of knowledge; we are not necessarily teaching. So those moments of contact are where the teaching actually happens, and if I feel I haven’t been able to negotiate one very well, I am usually disappointed.

Now, tell me some of the independent studies you’ve done. What kinds of topics do your students approach you to take?

Well, I have done one on Martial and Alexis Piron, who was a French epigrammatist around the time of Voltaire. In fact, Piron and Voltaire seem to have had a decent debate going on about what the nature of epigram is, and Piron lost; so he’s generally not read. The student was a double major in classical languages and French, so we read a lot of Piron together, as well as a lot of Martial, and she did a comparative study of the two. We also have a Renaissance incunabulum of Martial at Grand Valley. I had a student transcribe a number of pages of that, working with poem cycles in Martial. She did the “lion and the hare” cycle. She pursued those through the corpus and—it was Domitius Calderinus—she transcribed his comments and talked about them and then compared them, actually, to modern scholarship and talked about the utility and the purposes behind the different kinds of commentary, which actually was quite interesting for her. There was the practical hands-on work of learning to deal with abbreviations and trying to make decisions about what was actually being said, but then she was able to clearly articulate what the purpose of those commentaries was, relative to the purpose now. She pretty quickly figured out that commentaries now are for a very specialized audience. Calderinus was writing commentaries for people who needed to read the Latin: very focused on vocabulary explaining material culture—that kind of thing. It was a lot of fun.

Do you have any museum you can take your students to?

We do a field trip with our honors students to Toledo—the Roman glass, but especially the pots. We do this in our first semester, and we have the students making pots. We do ring building with clay, so they’re not spinning on a wheel or anything, but they have to choose a model shape, and model decoration that would be suitable for the shape, and they have to argue both their choice of shape and choice of decoration. We build it, they decorate it sort of like black figure, red figure, and then they fire it. So the trip to Toledo is a research trip: they go and they look at different shapes and they see them in the flesh, as it were. That’s always really fun.

One of my colleagues once remarked that students are like children in that they like routine but they love variety.

Absolutely. We’re all children, then, aren’t we? Some students don’t like routine, but one of my best teachers once said that all human beings are addictive in their personality; we are addictive creatures. It’s just a question of choosing a good addiction. I think routine is a very good addiction, especially for language classrooms.

Your citation says: “He has become an object of fascination for his students . . . without seeking to foster a cult of personality or playing to the crowd.” How do you walk this tightrope?

Certainly there is no question of playing to the crowd. I am just doing my job, but I think students get confused at the roles we play. I am fortunate that I am a guy and I think that affects how students react to me a great deal. I think my female colleagues have a harder time of it, because students have fewer roles that they can assign to them. So it is harder for my female colleagues to be themselves. Students tend to pigeonhole women faculty very quickly, and not in useful ways. So I’m lucky in that I can be the avuncular teacher, I can be the jolly uncle that everyone has had or knows about; that’s lucky for me. But I also say at least once a year to all my classes, “Just because I am friendly doesn’t mean I am your friend.” That is a really important thing to be able to articulate to them, because, you know, the way I am in class—which is frequently goofy and usually pretty understanding in working with students—is not really because I like them. I mean, some of them I actively dislike. They are just not, or don’t seem to be, good people to me, or, at least, they’re not becoming the good people they need to become in the future, and they are definitely not good students. But I still have a job to do and I still have a responsibility to be helpful to them, not because I am their friend, but because that is how I choose to pursue my job.

When I got my first teaching job in Ohio University, I got a little blackboard that you write on and wrote, “Be nicer than you want to be,” and stuck it on my door facing inwards, because it was a stressful time in my life and I knew that when I walked into the classroom I needed to just put on that hat, be the kind of instructor that I knew I could be on my best days. But then eventually I put it on the outside of my door so everybody could see it, because I think that is part of it as well. It is easy to stop and take a breath and think about what we are doing in the classroom. Being friendly is one of the ways we can do that, and I think it facilitates student learning, but there is a power relationship there that we have over students. We have to give them a grade, we have a responsibility to teach them, and, if we are not clear about maintaining that or at least recognizing that power relationship, then it throws everything off balance and they have no way to understand us.

How do you answer the question, “What is the point of learning Latin?”

I hate this question, I really do. I was talking to a friend about it today, and I said, “I teach Latin because I love it and I think other people can come to love it, and I think that is as much point as you need.” She laughed and said, “That is really funny, because fifteen years ago that is not the answer you would have given,” and I think that is true. Fifteen years ago, I would have had all the stats and the SAT scores and GRE scores and how great Latin is at fundamentals and training, and I could still dredge all those arguments up if I wanted to; but I think the fact of the matter is that, while Latin may concentrate those aspects of education and may give students a playing field in which they are all operating at once—and so maybe it is an enhanced way of introducing all those skills—they can get them in anything. Latin is not a panacea, and it is not anything particularly spectacular, it is just that there is a lot of wisdom and a lot of interesting stuff in Latin, and the intellectual life demands that we be curious about everything and that nothing be left because it is impractical. That is the whole point of being an intellectual being: you are smart enough to realize you have no idea what could be practical or not at any given moment. I think the real point in teaching Latin is to give a student something to love.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED

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