The Colgate Scene
March 2008

On teaching
A conversation with President Rebecca S. Chopp

President Chopp at a recent student leadership event [Photo by Tommy Brown]

Who was your most influential teacher?

I've had so many, but if I had to pick one, it would be William Lee, during my master's program at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. He had an enormous influence on me, not only as a model of teaching but also because he changed the way I thought.

Dr. Lee's specialty was the history of Christian philosophy and theology in the West. He was brilliant, he loved his subject matter, and he also loved his students.

He was nearly blind, so he had to wear big, dark glasses and hunch over to read his lectures. He would discuss the most complex materials — such as the writings of Aquinas, Boethius, or Augustine — and he would give amazing lectures, sitting down in order to read his notes. His presentations were so magnificent that we young kids from Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska would jump to our feet and give him standing ovations almost every time. I always admired his ability to have this connection with his students, even though he could barely see us. I've often wondered, what made him such an extraordinary teacher? I believe it was how he opened up our lives in front of the text, and opened the text up in front of our lives.

I learned from Dr. Lee that there is never a wrong question. He never belittled anyone; instead, he would reinterpret every question as if Kant or Hegel had just asked it. Dr. Lee had the ability to sweep you in and lead you forward when you didn't even know what you were asking. He opened up difficult concepts and made them realistic, and yet you had to stretch to understand them. All of a sudden, you had this utter confidence because you understood new ideas and new ways of thinking.

At a certain point, Dr. Lee asked me to come and speak to him. He told me that I should go to graduate school; it was his encouragement that made me believe I could get a PhD.

In honor of William Lee, my son's middle name is Lee.

In your own teaching, what have been some meaningful experiences?

There's nothing more gratifying than getting a student you respect or care for to see why you love your subject.

I once taught a class in American history of religion in which the class struggled a lot. There was an older fellow, who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran, and who was very upset by some of the opinions he was reading. He simply could not get into the text of W.E.B. Du Bois. Another student who was from China, living in exile, was fascinated by Du Bois — and he and the veteran became friends.

One day we were reading the chapter in The Souls of Black Folk where Du Bois talks about the death of his young son. As it turned out, both of these men had also lost young sons. That became a transformative moment, where the text, and the people, opened up. That is a special thing about smaller classes — you set the table for a conversation.

At Colgate, I had the opportunity to teach a course with Wanda Warren Berry [philosophy and religion, emerita] on women, religion, and spirituality, and that was a wonderful course.

I love to teach, and I've made myself a promise that before I retire I will go back to teaching.

Universities have long been accused of valuing research over teaching. Where do those two values sit at Colgate?

Liberal arts colleges like Colgate keep their focus on the students. Many faculty in large universities do as well, but the incentive systems — tenure, rewards, salary — are usually tied much more to research than teaching.

At Colgate we find faculty who are superb scholars, but who also understand that excellence in teaching is not negotiable. I've often said that I'm amazed at how hard it is to get tenure at Colgate. All the way up the line, enormous care is taken to know how the person teaches. When a faculty member is granted tenure, you know that they are really excelling at teaching. One of the things I like about Colgate is that every time I hear alumni asking professors about what it is like to teach here, our faculty can't say enough about how they love to teach the students.

I'd also point out that the new paradigm of the liberal arts blends teaching and research together. Knowledge is changing so rapidly that I don't know of a single discipline where you can go to graduate school, receive your education like putting money in a bank, and then dispense it to students throughout your career. The only way to keep up is to do scholarship.

How is strong teaching developed and supported at Colgate?

We have a lot of built-in ways, and it starts in the academic departments and programs. The senior faculty do a very good job of mentoring the junior faculty.

The faculty itself has also started a variety of initiatives like teaching circles, where one person will talk about a topic, issue, or area of interest and will lead a conversation over lunch. And our Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research includes not only support for student learning, but also for faculty teaching.

In the core curriculum, the Core 151 and 152 faculty members from across the disciplines meet regularly to talk about what they're teaching. Every spring, there is also a two-day retreat where the faculty who teach in all areas of the core, and all new professors, come together and discuss teaching in the core.

That approach moves into interdisciplinary programs, and in our new institutes and centers. The Upstate Institute and service learning programs have been a tremendous boon to our faculty. Projects such as our students going into Utica to assist refugees in getting health care, or developing the Abolitionist Hall of Fame grew largely out of faculty research. As a result of bringing students into the work, they began to experiment with new ways to improve their teaching.

Any time the faculty work together they improve their teaching; it's like when artists or musicians work together. They inevitably help each other to see things in new ways.

What would be your dream course to teach today?

Next fall, Tim Byrnes (from political science) and I are teaching a first-year seminar on religion and politics in the world. We will take five case studies of religion and politics in different parts of the world and look at them theologically — what the people believe and what they are saying to themselves — and in the political context. We want the students to understand that one has to take seriously the intermingling of religion and politics today, and to learn the critical and analytical tools that can be used to understand people who come from such different backgrounds and have different beliefs.

I'm excited to teach with Tim Byrnes, who is one of our all-around great teachers, and I think it will be a fascinating course.

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