LASTING LESSONS • Winter 2002
Washington University's superb teachers have changed the lives of the students who have learned from them. Here, three alumni describe faculty whose lessons will last a lifetime.

Michael W. Fox, Former Associate Professor of Psychology

 

Nancy Luetzow:

"Just this morning, as I was watching the hummingbirds at my feeder, I wondered why they behave the way they do. That's because of Professor Fox!

"I was a Russian major spending inordinate amounts of time immersed in Russian. A friend told me: 'Take the animal behavior course with Michael Fox; everybody loves him!' It was the absolute truth. He had a wonderfully understated sense of humor mixed with enthusiasm and such knowledge.

"I already had a fascination with human communications and language, but his course opened up a whole new world. One of the more interesting assignments involved being sent to the Saint Louis Zoo to observe something about the physical nature and behavior of certain animals. Professor Fox asked us to come back with whatever analyses we were able to make.

"I knew that within the animal kingdom certain evolutionary patterns of behavior existed, but because of his lectures, I started applying what I had learned to everyday life: for example, watching two dogs communicate, baring teeth, raising hackles, fighting or avoiding confrontation. There's also the whole pecking order issue that is so applicable to human behavior. I started thinking about humans as animals: How do we communicate? What role do cultural and social differences play? And what about the evolutionary role of certain behaviors, like sexual or aggressive behaviors?

"Even now, as I watch my hummingbirds, I find myself reflecting on these questions!"

 

Nancy Gorman Luetzow, A.B. '75, translates scientific-technical Russian into English, and she sings professionally.

 


 

Sally A. Goldman, Professor of Computer Science; Assistant Chair, Department of Computer Science and Engineering

Stephen Scott:

"Nobody wants to be the one asking a 'dumb question,' and that perceived stigma can keep students from participating. So each class period I assign a student to ask three questions about the material we're covering. If they already understand everything, they should think of a question to elucidate the subject for someone else.

"That's an adaptation of a rapport-building technique I learned from Sally Goldman. It relieves pressure and encourages participation. And it gives students the basis for understanding the fundamental aspects of the material, so they'll be able to understand what comes next.

"Ph.D. programs often emphasize research, but from Sally I also learned a comprehensive view of teaching that extends beyond the classroom. I cannot imagine having a better mentor.

"She helped us in our research while teaching us communication skills, both written and oral. To this end, Sally used a technique she called a 'meta-talk'—her discussion on how to give a talk, because students need to have good presentation skills for conferences, talks, and job interviews.

"In adapting this, I give each student a semester project, and when the time comes to present results, I give a 'meta-talk,' as practice toward the criteria against which I will measure them. As I keep telling them: 'Even if you have the best result in the world, it is meaningless if you cannot get it across to others.'

"My 2001 College Distinguished Teaching Award is largely due to what I learned from Sally."

 

Stephen D. Scott, D.Sc. '98, is a Harold & Esther Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Nebraska.

 


John D. Sprague, Professor of Political Science

 

Chris Gilbert:

"'A man named John Sprague called from Washington University; I think that's where you should go,' said my mother, who had taken the call. What struck me when I called him back still rings true: John has an amazing, infectious enthusiasm for his subject that never veers into arrogance or pomposity.

"When I visited the University, he gave me a one-hour, whistle-stop tour of St. Louis. Feeling rather overawed, I asked only one question: 'What should I read over the summer?' Forty-plus titles and authors poured out of John's mouth—each one relevant and excellent.

"Almost every conversation I had with him was like that; it left me feeling undereducated—in a good way!

"John's syllabus was the longest I had ever seen. It described in detail not only what we would study but why. He called it his 'provisional battle plan.' We almost never followed it—it was the starting point!

"That illustrates the creativity essential to his teaching. He encouraged us to be receptive to what was not covered.

"Not everyone could teach like that. The class could wander in a whole host of directions, but John had confidence that the right kinds of conversation would take place.

"He would playfully toss an eraser at you if he caught you taking notes: John wanted us to think. Afterward, we would scramble to remember the books and articles he'd mentioned. These were the ones that pushed you forward.

"John always gave us access to his unfinished research data. His attitude regarding knowledge is generous and fearless: It should all become part of the larger exchange of ideas. This was a refreshing quality."

Christopher P. Gilbert, Ph.D. '90, is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Gustavus Adolphus College.