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Northwestern University

Meet Three of Weinberg's Best Teachers

The soft but persistent tapping of keys on computer keyboards is the only sound in the class besides Peter Hayes’ voice as he asks, “Why now?” Most students are taking notes the old-fashioned way, pen on paper, but about one in three tries to capture his every word on a laptop. The fierce attention in Coon Forum is palpable.

“The Nazis were an anti-Semitic political party which comes into power in January of 1933,” says Hayes. “They do not start killing Jews en masse until the summer of 1941, eight and a half years later. Why now?”

Hayes works in interrogative form, he explains later, structuring the lecture around a clear and memorable answer to a question and showing how that answer is reached. “Students are not interested in history when it’s just one thing after another. They are interested in assembling a chain of evidence, but always with a purpose.” The goal of his lectures is clarity, making all the pieces come together in an account students can follow and understand.

History is inherently dramatic, he says, always a story with characters, although the characters may be events or groups or movements. His lectures are tightly structured narratives that sometimes end in a cliffhanger. He begins Tuesday’s lecture by “When we last tuned in,” and ends it with “To find out what happens, come back on Thursday.”

Hayes’ power to captivate has become legendary on campus. His tough standards—including an “almost absurd amount of reading,” according to one student—are legendary too, yet it can be difficult to get a spot in his classes, even the large lecture courses. Some say his History of the Holocaust is life-changing; few seem to leave the class unmarked.

He says during an interview in his Harris Hall office that his passion for the subject came from separate strands. As a child of the ’60s, he was caught up in the Civil Rights movement and in the racial violence of the time he sees certain parallels with the Holocaust. His sister married into a German family and he began to learn the language. Raised Irish Catholic in Framingham, Massachusetts, his best high school friends were Jews and he found anti-Semitism baffling. During graduate studies at Oxford University, when Third Reich expert Timothy W. Mason intrigued him with the subject, the strands were tied together and Hayes’ professional life determined.

With degrees from Bowdoin and Oxford and a PhD from Yale, he is a scholar of 20th century German history and, at Northwestern, the Theodore Z. Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies. He has written and edited seven books, among them studies of corporate involvement in the Holocaust: "From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich" (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and "Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era" (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Hayes says when he first started teaching at Northwestern in 1980, students seemed to know little about the Holocaust, but nowadays, most have been exposed to the subject in high school classes, in Hebrew school, even on the History Channel. Part of his mission is to “rearrange the bits of what they know so they fit into a larger pattern.” Facts are analyzed, charts explained, historical documents presented.

He does not play with students’ emotions—a cheap trick, in his view. “I treat the subject like any other historical problem that requires explanation: how could this happen and why? One year I used a set of readings that were too graphic, a story called "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen", and a collection of survivors' accounts of what happened to them. Some of the students were so upset by what they read, it got to them in a way that overshot the mark. And I never did it again.”

How do you get students to think for themselves on a subject that is so black and white, so clearly delineated between good guys and bad guys?

“You start by dissecting what the people who became bad guys believed,” he says. “While we may regard their beliefs as illogical and contemptible, when you engage in that process you see the ways in which the links occurred to them. And that is a powerful warning. Even crazy people can seem to be rational.

“Also, it’s one thing to talk about the thoroughly bad guys—Hitler and Himmler and Goering. But much of what occurred in the persecution of the Jews, particularly in stealing their property, was done by people acting on a set of entirely different, mundane motives. They attached those motives to the evil purposes of the Nazis but they were not necessarily the same purposes. And that shows the corruptibility of a society.”

He teaches students how to arrive at their own responsible judgments about the Holocaust and its moral gray areas, a training of the mind which, in the long run, seems also to involve the heart.

Understanding Calculus is a Click Away

An innovative use of a simple device—a handheld clicker—is transforming the way students in Martina Bode’s class learn calculus. Each student picks up a small white remote control from a box at the front of the room, then finds a seat in a class many describe as “fun.” Calculus fun? Even for non-majors, like most of these?

Bode activates her power point presentation and a problem appears on a large screen at the front of the class: Evaluate log25(0.2). Five possible answers follow the problem. Sixty-some students working in small groups create a pleasant buzz in the room. After a short time, Bode begins her countdown to the solution: “Five, four, three, two, one,” she says, waving the corresponding number of fingers in the air. It’s clicking time, and each student sends her an answer via the remote control. Instantly a smiley face appears on the screen next to the right answer. Then a color-coded pie chart materializes, showing how many got the right answer (82 percent in this case), and how many chose each of the other possibilities.

It’s instant gratification (or groaning) for the students and instant feedback for Bode. For reinforcement, she works out the problem step by step with help from the class. Then another problem appears on the screen and another. At the end of class, the team with the most correct answers wins a prize. This bright October day, it’s Pez dispensers with a Halloween theme.

Using the technology is more work upfront for Bode—creating credible multiple choice answers for each problem, for instance, by anticipating what students might get wrong. Bode worked with Academic Technologies to design the program and get it running two years ago. It’s worth it, she says. Eighty percent of students surveyed say they learn more calculus this way—including from the interaction within the small groups—than through the traditional lecture method.

Growing up near Essen, Germany on the Ruhr River, Bode never dreamed she’d be in front of a classroom in the U.S., let alone one known for cutting-edge teaching tools. Although she loved math, she says she thought of becoming an archeologist or a lawyer and staying right there on the Ruhr.

Her life detour was prompted by a teacher from the University of Essen, who asked if she was interested in studying graduate-level math at Brandeis University. “Sure, for a year,” she remembers replying. Now, 20 years later, she is still on this side of the Atlantic. While at Brandeis she met her husband, Kari Vilonen, then an assistant professor at Harvard, and they had two children before she finished her PhD. Bode then joined her husband in teaching at Harvard before both came to Northwestern seven years ago.

Here she is known as a teacher so popular that keeping class size down can be a problem. She often teaches double sections of 80 to 100 students: word gets around that she has a gift for explaining complex concepts in a way that can be understood by all.

Some of it is the high-tech bells and whistles, but most of it is Bode’s gift for reaching students.

“In a really good class, there is a connection,” she says. “Students will make some remarkable comments; they will be able to look ahead and do the next step, before I even do it on the board. Or they will struggle and ask good questions and we end the class with the feeling that everyone did understand.”

A key to her success is the comfort students feel in asking her questions, both inside and outside the classroom. The Daily Northwestern has cited her as one of the best professors to visit during office hours. For Bode, this translates into a steady stream of visitors to her office in Lunt Hall, where she offers encouragement as they struggle with problems on her dry erase board.

“I will not have 100 students who come out of a big class and decide to major in math,” says Bode, a cheerful realist. “If I have a handful who do, that’s a great reward.”

Rap, Movies, TV — Today’s Pop Culture Energizes 19th Century Lit Classes

How do you capture the interest of today’s headphone-wearing, text-messaging college students when teaching the novels of Charles Dickens, George Eliot or Bram Stoker? For Professor Jules Law, you reach students where they are on culture’s timeline—through rap music, videos, film and TV clips—and pull them in by drawing parallels between present and past. It seems rapper Eminem really does have something to say about "Dracula".

Law is an expert in literary theory and in Victorian literature, especially the novel. He was trained at the University of Toronto and at Johns Hopkins. He taught at Princeton before coming to Northwestern in 1987. Over time, he says, he has become increasingly interested in the relationship between forms of popular culture today and older forms, like Dickens’ novels. “Dickens was a contemporary form of popular culture in the 19th century. He would be astonished to know we are teaching his novels at a university today because he was the pulp fiction of his day.”

We recently glimpsed how deftly Law connects with students in the packed auditorium of Harris 107. A screen descends from the ceiling and Eminem appears as the character Stan in the music video with the refrain familiar to fans, “It reminds me it’s not so bad; it’s not so bad….” In the video, and in the film clip from the movie "Y Tu Mamá También" which follows, there is a love triangle, Law points out. But the male rivals for the woman’s affection seem to experience the most intense feelings for one another, whether those feelings are of love or of hate.

“Why does the woman act as conduit for their relationship?” he asks the class. “Let’s turn to "Dracula" to see if it can help us answer some questions about male homosocial desire.”

Students say he makes the most difficult concepts of literary theory understandable through a cultural language they speak and understand. Given the rigor and intensity of his teaching, it is not mere fun they are seeking, but something deeper—a new way of looking at themselves and their world, perhaps.

Law says the Jane Austen boom has helped students think of 19th century novels as accessible, fun, and interesting. But the novelists he teaches most successfully are George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

“Hardy is a real downer,” Law says. “But there is a kind of tragic vision in his work that is not that difficult to connect to strains in contemporary culture. Students of today experience some of the dilemmas, particularly those having to do with the role of women in the late 19th century, as relevant and poignant.”

He admits to having a kind of home court advantage when it comes to staying current with the trappings of youthful culture.

“My son is a sophomore in college,” he says. “And he’s a musician too—jazz piano and contemporary progressive rock. I freely confess my musical tastes are aided by his.” Law and partner Wendy Wall, English department chair, also have a five-year-old daughter they adopted from Guatemala.

In music and films he has impeccable taste, according to colleagues who wrote in support of Law for the McCormick Award. He says he especially admires the work of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, both Canadians, as is Law. “Both have received criticism for being a little gruesome at times. I find their interest in violence not sensational or melodramatic but rather part of an inquiry into the nature of an embodied citizen, a person with an actual body negotiating his way through the world.”

His class is a success when students come away with a sense that looking for patterns in narratives and works of art is interesting and valuable, he says.

“I’d like them to regard literary works as artifacts that have a kind of structure or pattern to them and it’s worth digging a little to try and illuminate them, bring out the grain. And I give them specific critical terms, concepts, and categories that I hope they can take beyond the particular reading—acquired skills which can be used to interpret or analyze other novels, other films.”

“After taking his class, you’ll never read a book quite the same way again,” says one student admirer.

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