Teaching luminaries share classroom secrets at Academic Forum

Renowned social psychologist Elliot Aronson inspired the crowd on Saturday. (Photos by Steve Kurtz)
The forum brought together an eclectic and distinguished group of educators.

In the eclectic world of the UC Santa Cruz classroom, undergraduates can train "pirate" robots to pelt each other with ping-pong balls.

Students can learn to analyze texts and examine political events by peering into their own lives.

Young theater-arts scholars learn to channel complex emotions into works of enduring art while biology students take pride in identifying, studying and even naming their own viruses.

The large crowd that attended the Academic Forum at the Humanities Lecture Hall —one of the cornerstones of the UCSC Alumni Reunion Weekend—had a rare opportunity to hear these and other teaching secrets of renowned educators, ranging from social psychologist Elliot Aronson to noted feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker.

This candid dialogue emphasized the various ways a great teacher can motivate students, help them take ownership of their education and sharpen their analytical skills, without ever losing sense of their empathy and natural curiosity.

Study your life

Bettina Aptheker began with a line from the late poet Adrienne Rich:

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music …

The line was an appropriate kick-off to her presentation, which emphasized the importance of students studying their own lives to help them analyze feminism, racism and colonialism. “I encourage students to critically experience and engage with their own lives” as a means of understanding and as a way to extend compassion to others, she said.

While urging students to develop their analytical thinking to take part in an "effective democracy," Aptheker also advised them “to do work you love, to come from a place of optimism. Embrace a tree. Chatter back to a raven. Kiss the horizon. Utopian? Hopeless? … I say Eden is a place in the mind. Envision it and make it so.”

Rise of the robots

Gabe Elkaim spoke with equal joy about a very different discipline—the building of robots—during a presentation about his unusual but highly effective teaching techniques. In his most popular class, Introduction to Mechatronics, 36 students spend 10 weeks building robots in teams of three, culminating with a class presentation with varying themes. One semester, students and their robots acted out the parts of bulls and toreadors. In another, a “Slugs of the Caribbean” theme had student navigating their robot “ships” to an enemy island and firing ping-pong balls at their foes.

One of his most enduring teaching lessons is “Fail early and often. In many ways, the class is Failure 101. You have no idea how to do it right before you start.”

The class is fun and grueling. “Toward the end, classmates barely sleep. They put their heart and soul into the robots. Sometimes they come to me and say, ‘it doesn’t work!’ I say, ‘it’s OK. This is just an exercise, getting you to do something hard, beyond what you thought you could do.’”

Taking pride in scientific research

Manuel Ares, a professor of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCSC, has his students go out into the field, isolate and identify phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria.

He channels their excitement of discovery into an impactful teaching experience—and turns them into teachers in the process. It’s thrilling for them to go out, gather some dirt and discover these phages out in the forest. Students determine functions of the phages’ genes. They take ownership of the entire process. “They say, ‘this is my virus, and I want to find out how it works,’” Ares said.

“Research is indivisible from teaching,” he said. “As soon as you discover something, you’re going to tell somebody else about it. That makes you, instantly, a teacher.”

Genuine emotion, great theater

Theater Arts professor Kate Edmunds repeated Elkaim’s assertion that failing early and failing often, can be healthy for students. Devoted artists, like devoted scientists, are engaged in a series of disciplines and repetitions. Students can learn what it is like to try, and fail, on a small scale before they go out in front of a trusting, paying crowd that has agreed to sit in a theater without windows and take in their performance, she said.

“You have to be really good at what you do to take up people’s time that way,” Edmunds said. “I tell students about scientists going into their labs knowing they won’t find the solution to a given problem in their lifetimes. Do you have the same dedication? … The moment you know what failed, you move a step ahead. Don’t throw away those failures. They may become helpful to you some day.”

Edmunds made Theater Arts sound like a challenging discipline but also emphasized the joy of creation, and the transcendent feeling students get when they channel something real and true into their craft.

“Technology changes, but what doesn’t change is this: We fall in love. We get our hearts broken. Our feet our pulled out from underneath us, and we experience great joy. Life is messy. Let’s take all that messiness, edit it down, show it in all its horrific beauty, put it on stage for two hours and do that eight times a week. That’s what poetry is.”

Thinking and feeling in the classroom

Renowned social psychologist Elliot Aronson, who taught at UCSC from 1974 to 1994, made quite an entrance to the forum, where he was accompanied by his dog, Desilu. Aronson, who suffers from macular degeneration, has lost most of his eyesight, but his presentation – about the intersection between analytical skills and empathy – was notably upbeat.

"I don’t have my eyesight, but I still have my vision,” he quipped.

On Friday, Aronson received the Distinguished Emeriti Award from the division of Social Sciences at a luncheon at the Seymour Center.

Aronson said that UCSC’s unique and intimate college system made his academic and intellectual life fascinating on campus. At Kresge College, there was a philosopher one office down from me. Two doors down was the sculptor Jack Zajac, and the creative writer Carter Wilson was just down the hall. It was just an enormous pleasure to be there.”

While some professors shy away from teaching intro courses, Aronson said he relished the chance to teach complex topics to young students just finding their way in college. One of his favorite exercises was inspired by Franz Kafka’s famous letter to his father, in which he gives his elder a detailed dressing down. Taking his cue from Kafka, Aronson asked his students to write a hypothetical letter one of their own parents, holding nothing back.

"If you have a bone to pick, or two, or three, or 20, write it down, but don’t give it to the parent. Give it to us."  But here’s the rub. After students wrote that first letter, Aronson then made them sit down and write a letter from the perspective of the targeted parent. “There’s the empathy, there’s the compassion,” he said. "The critical ability allows them to nail that parent … but then they have to try and figure out what is going on in the parent’s life, the overpowering events that might explain the things you find objectionable."

"This assignment encapsulates what an educated person should be able to do," he said in closing.