It’s often said in the halls of learning that teaching is more than a profession: It’s a calling. Just ask Barnard College President Debora Spar and her predecessor President Judith Shapiro. They are still making time in their busy schedules to teach classes, despite many other responsibilities.
Teaching is a passion neither is willing to leave behind. Spar teaches a course on economics, while Shapiro is leading a first-year history seminar, but their teaching styles have one thing in common: They’ve both abandoned the traditional college lecture course. In their classes, students lead discussions, come to their own conclusions, and are encouraged to think for themselves.
Burning Down the House
Debora Spar’s economics class always begins with a song. On a recent rainy Wednesday morning, The Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” played as her students launched into a discussion of last year’s subprime mortgage meltdown, the subject of this particular class. “Is this appropriate?” Spar asks. Her students burst into laughter.
She borrowed the idea from a former colleague who began every class by singing a song that related to the topic at hand. “I have a terrible voice,” says Spar, a former professor at Harvard Business School. “So I needed to substitute iTunes instead. It’s actually great fun to try and think of songs that ‘fit,’ though I will confess that it occasionally is pretty tough.”
Students say the songs are a fun way to get started. But what they like best about Spar’s class is that she lets them lead the discussion although she is careful not to allow them to get off track too much. But encouraging students to come to their own conclusions is paramount. “I’m glad it’s not a lecture class,” says Alison Goldberg ’12. “She really wants to hear what people think.” Spar has been an award-winning teacher for years, and for this economics course on the Great Depression, she draws on Harvard Business School case studies to find connections with today’s “Great Recession” and to consider the lessons of each. More than 50 students are enrolled, including a few young men. In class, she relies on the case study, or Socratic, method because students really do have to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. “I’ve been impressed,” says Elizabeth Byerly ’11. “She’s been able to pull off the Socratic method with 60 kids.”
Spar has no trouble getting students to share their thoughts about how economics interacts with politics during an economic crisis. Many hands wave wildly in the air as the class discusses the causes of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Some said a new mortgage model had emerged in recent years. They argued that banks had relaxed their lending standards too much and had given out too many loans to people who couldn’t repay them. Homeowners only had themselves to blame for buying a home they couldn’t afford in the first place.
Other students were more sympathetic. A few said there’s nothing wrong with making it easier for more people with low incomes to buy a home and live out their own version of the American dream. Instead, they blamed banks and mortgage brokers for becoming too greedy and overheating the market. Meanwhile others pointed out that politicians and regulators had failed to regulate the mortgage industry effectively.
Spar writes her students’ thoughts and ideas on the chalkboard. By the end of the class, her black skirt is covered in chalk dust and the problems facing the American economy had become all too clear. “I wish I could end on an optimistic note,” Spar says as the class came to a conclusion. “But I can’t.”
It’s a Monday afternoon, several students arrive for Judith Shapiro’s class wearing traditional Chinese hats and long silk dresses; costumes are encouraged in Shapiro’s history seminar “Reacting to the Past,” part of Barnard’s first-year program. In this class, students reenact important intellectual debates throughout history in competitive “games.” They’re assigned specific roles, and then rely on historical texts to make their points and defeat their opponents.
On this day, about 15 students are reliving the sixteenth-century succession dispute between Chinese emperor Wan-Li and his Confucian bureaucrats, using the Analects of Confucius as their text. Shapiro has arrived in a long green silk dress that reaches her ankles, carrying a canvas bag that reads “I (heart) Confucius.” “I think teaching should be a very joyful thing,” says Shapiro, who was an anthropology professor and provost at Bryn Mawr prior to her appointment as president of Barnard.
She explains why the succession crisis behind the walls of the Forbidden City was part of the wider downfall of the Ming Dynasty. But it’s clear from the start that Shapiro’s students are creating their own version of Chinese history. “I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into,” comments Tamar Glattstein ’13, who plays the part of Emperor Wan-Li.
The Emperor may exile or kill his opponents as he sees fit during the game. The students debate issues back and forth. Meanwhile Shapiro observes, silent for the most part. “For me to sit back and not run it and not talk too much is an effort,” Shapiro admits. “But it’s certainly a worthwhile effort.”
In the end, the game didn’t play out exactly as historical events had. In Shapiro’s class, Wan-Li is allowed to name his favorite, but third-born, son as his successor instead of his first-born, something that didn’t happen in real life. And that’s exactly what Shapiro is willing to see happen, since it teaches students that there is no total inevitability in history. At the same time, “Reacting” classes always involve a “debriefing” at the end of a game, so that students understand what actually did happen.
“It was daunting at first,” says Zahava Moerdler ’13, who played Wan- Li’s first grand secretary, the leader of the Secretariat. “I wasn’t sure how to deal with each person. But in the end I really enjoyed it.”
The format helps students such as Moerdler in many ways, observes Shapiro. They become more actively engaged with history, and they become more confident public speakers. It also teaches them that ideas develop in a historical context. “They don’t just fall out of the sky,” she says.
Perhaps most important, the format gets her students to think beyond themselves and their own experiences, at a time when exploring one’s own identity and place in the world usually takes precedence. Shapiro says that’s why she enjoys watching her students really take the lead in her class. “If you let go of the control,” Shapiro says, “something good can happen.”
-by Amy Miller, photographs by David Wentworth