It’s a question for the ages: how does a professor stimulate learning in the classroom? The answer may have been found by Professor Robert Gross, historian and recipient of UConn’s 2009 Honors Faculty Member of the Year Award.
Gross, and a team of other UConn faculty, have developed a new curriculum for the Honors Program that cuts across disciplines and departments. The courses they selected present material from various different perspectives to help students gain a more holistic picture and draw more informed conclusions.
“You need to encourage each student to develop his or her abilities to the greatest extent,” says Gross, who came to UConn in 2003 as the first Draper Chair of Early American History, a position he still holds. “Sometimes that means using different pathways, depending on the individual student, in order to reach a common end point.”
Putting this approach into practice, one of the courses Gross co-developed is based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854. The course explores the transcendental ideas presented in the book from the perspective of various fields including art, literature, history, geology, and environmental studies.
“So often today, you find students are being ‘recruited’ for specific majors,” says Gross. “They don’t always have the opportunity to explore other fields of interest. They can get stuck in one mode of thought.”
Gross says that since people learn and think in different ways, while a single method of teaching may work wonders for one student, it can flop for another. Exploring different scenarios presented in coursework – whether the focus is on Thoreau’s transcendentalism or Einstein’s quantum mechanics – forces students to think about the material in ways they may not have previously considered, he says. This, in turn, reaches across differences in learning styles and fosters new ways of creative thinking and problem solving.
Recipients of the Honors Faculty Member of the Year Award, like Gross, are nominated by students who feel that they have benefited greatly from their time in association with the nominee.
Says Katherin Siracusa, a seventh-semester honors student majoring in international business and French, “Rather than applying simply to my studies or future career goals, the concepts we discussed in [Professor Gross’s] class related to life.
“Professor Gross values the opinions of his students, more than any other professor I have met,” she adds. “Part of [his] talent in teaching is his ability to provoke such intriguing and stimulating discussions.”
When asked to describe his philosophy on education, Gross explains, “I see each student as a person I need to invest myself in fully if I want them to produce high quality scholarship.”
This form of dedication, agree many of Gross’s students, is a key component in what makes him so effective as both a historian and an instructor. Like most investments, time and devotion earn dividends.
“He poses probing and original questions and invites students to respond in a warm and engaging manner,” says Linda Meditz, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department.
“He forces students to reevaluate their preconceived notions,” says another of his former students. “His skill at getting students to see the larger significance of their work is what sets Gross apart.”
Through discussion, the exploration of subject matter, and one-on-one interaction with students from all majors and programs of study, Gross hopes to nurture life-long pursuers of knowledge – students who will continue to seek knowledge even after they graduate. In this way, he believes, they will become thoughtful, productive members of society.
“While college can and ideally should be a defining experience in a student’s life, the truth is that an undergraduate’s career lasts but four years,” he says. “The best I can do is to cultivate in my students the critical habits of thinking and reasoning, and encourage them to dedicate the use of their intelligence to the betterment of the world.”
But it’s a two way street, he notes, emphasizing that students need to be just as invested in their education as the professor. An instructor can use every trick in the book to try and get a student to learn the material, but if they are uninterested or unwilling to do the work, chances are none of it will matter, he says.
It’s not just about showing up to class, he continues. Students need to be mentally, as well as physically, present in order to benefit from course material.
“To foster learning,” Gross says, “you need to have impassioned people pursuing what they’re passionate about.”