Teaching Outside the Box
SU faculty members find innovative ways to engage students in their subject matter, both in and out of the classroom
by Victoria Kidd
THE GREEK PHILOSOPHER PLUTARCH ONCE SAID, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.” Two millennia later, educators still seek to spark a passion for learning in their students. They accomplish this through a variety of pedagogical practices. The premise behind many of these practices is that no question has just one answer. And just as questions have more than one answer, effective teaching requires more than a single approach.
The skillful planning and forethought of Susquehanna’s faculty members yield numerous examples of out-of-the-box teaching methods. Provost and Dean of Faculty Linda McMillin says this is a way of life for professors at Susquehanna. “SU faculty has been engaged in innovative pedagogy since I first came here 20 years ago. It’s just the way we do business,” she says.
Laurence Roth, professor of English and coordinator of the Jewish Studies program, says he sees no alternative to innovation. He believes good teaching relies on inspiration, and good teachers must always be open to the possibility of new and unexpected sources of inspiration. The likely consequence of inspiration is a memorable learning experience.
Every lucky student has had at least one. Consider the professor of political theory who insists that his students listen to his retelling of Plato’s Republic, fashioned from his own reading of the original text in ancient Greek, before allowing the class to crack open a translation of the seminal work. Or imagine the English teacher who on the first day of class passes out pages of Latin roots and promises that by year’s end every student will know the translation of the roots, not by rote learning, but through use of an expanded vocabulary.
Years later, students look back at these experiences and remember not a teacher who stood before a lectern, but rather the moment of ignition that sparked a conflagration of curiosity and learning that delivered them to an avocation or vocation.
FROM THE MOMENT Lynn Palermo learned the Lore Degenstein Gallery housed a permanent collection of approximately 1,600 French posters, she vowed to employ the collection as a teaching tool. That was eight years ago, during her interview for a position as visiting assistant professor of French, and through the years, she and her colleagues in the Department of Modern Languages have used the posters for a variety of purposes, from research subjects to classroom projects.
“The posters are such a rich resource,” says Palermo, now associate professor of French. “They’re very appealing to students at any level of study, and we can use them to teach students all kinds of things about French culture because the posters cover a broad range of products and events.”
Donated to the university in 1997 by Joseph and Ann Silbaugh P'98, '04, the collection spans nearly a century and provides students with opportunities to work with the French language here on campus and to gain an understanding of French attitudes, values and perspectives at different points in modern history.
Palermo put that assertion to the test last spring when she challenged students in her Women in Postwar France class to launch a full-scale art exhibition using the posters. The result was Le Salon des Arts Ménagers (The Household Arts Exhibition): Posters of the Modern French Home 1945–1982. The bilingual exhibition depicted the French government’s ideal of the modern home of the 1950s and 1960s as a model of cleanliness and harmony. These ideals were promoted through the Salon des Arts Ménagers, an annual trade show in Paris, similar in spirit to the world’s fairs, showcasing technical innovations for the home. The university’s collection includes numerous posters advertising appliances for the “modern woman.” But, according to Palermo, the underlying messages in the posters—and the Salon itself—were promoting a paradoxical image of the modern woman.