Professors talk about why they love to teach first-years

Reasons are varied, commitment the same

Photos/Mike Lovett

From left, Donald Katz, Sarah Lamb, Robert Art and Eileen McNamara

They’re among the most respected researchers, lecturers and educators in their fields. Why do so many go out of their way to teach freshmen who have never heard of them?

“When you teach an introductory course, you’re forced to confront the fundamental controversies in the field; forced to try to answer basic questions that people have struggled with through the millennia and forced to confront your own values,” says Robert Art, the Christian A. Herter Professor of International Relations. “Where do you stand on what’s politically feasible and what’s morally desirable?”

You’re also forced to be broad, Art says: “You have to know a little about a lot of things, so it’s a good counter against overspecialization, which is so characteristic in academia and science today, in general.”

Art’s research in national security affairs and American foreign policy keeps him in demand on campus and off, consulting for numerous organizations including the Center for a New American Security and the United States government.

“Freshmen and sophomores, in many ways, ask the most interesting questions, since they’re not socialized into a field and have not accepted the prevailing views,” says Art of students in his class Introduction to International Relations (POL 15a).

He doesn’t believe college professors actually teach anybody anything, but that students must learn by themselves. What you do as a professor, he says, is communicate enthusiasm for the subject and demonstrate by example what it is to think through a problem.

“I don’t care what kind of an answer my students give, as long as it’s reasoned and well argued,” Art says.

With a diverse student body from around the globe, virtually every class contains a wide variety of views. That’s one reason Sarah Lamb, professor of anthropology, says she enjoys teaching Introduction to the Comparative Study of Human Societies, (ANTH 1A).

“Students are amazed to understand people who have quite a different worldview and outlook than they do,” says Lamb. “Through that process, they also realize that the things they took for granted as true or normal for themselves are just one particular point of view in the world.”

It’s also exciting, she says, when some students decide to become anthropology majors.

She recalls a refugee from Sudan who, after taking the introductory class, became an anthropology major then went on to law school with the intent to work with immigrants. Many students, she says, go abroad to work on issues of public service health care and gender.

“Even if they never take another anthropology class, if they now have a greater awareness of diversity and respect for others and awareness that their own beliefs and world views are not the only ones out there, they will be better at what they do,” says Lamb, “whether it’s international relations, politics or medicine or business.”

If students want to learn what makes them do the things they do, they can check out Introduction to Behavioral Neuroscience (NPSY 11b), with Donald Katz, associate professor of psychology, who says one reason he likes teaching it because he gets to cover a lot of ground.

“I have found that these kids are really eager to learn and very much like the idea that the textbook is last years’ news and that science is always changing.”

The course covers learning and memory, sex, how the sensory and motor systems work, how the brain causes behavior and how behavior shapes the brain.

“It’s a heavy workload course, and the average grade is a B-,” says Katz. “It’s great when students say they’ve had a good time, and it’s really great when they say they had no intention of studying this sort of stuff but want to now.”

This fall, with the upcoming presidential election, students will have the opportunity to take Political Packaging in America (JOUR 104a), which examines presidential campaigns from 1960s to the present, looking at media coverage, advertising and how media and politics intersect.

Eileen McNamara, professor of the practice in journalism, says she’s only had the opportunity to teach it twice previously. All of her classes are open to freshmen.

McNamara began teaching at Brandeis in the mid-1990s while she was a columnist at the Boston Globe. Nearly two decades and a Pulitzer Prize later, she also teaches a basic reporting course, Ethics in Journalism (JOUR 110b) and Media and Public Policy (JOUR 107b), about how policy decision-makers and journalists interact on the national scene.

“You have some very confident freshmen at Brandeis who aren’t afraid to voice an opinion, says McNamara. “But even the kids who are very self-confident have a little piece of them that is scared -- it’ a new experience and they’re away from home. I like looking out for them, making some sort of connection with them so that if they have an issue they’ll come and visit me.”

Categories: General, Student Life

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage