Subject to Enthusiasm

Teachers & Teaching: Part II

On every university campus, there exist certain professors who, at the very mention of their names, cause students to cringe with fear. At the University of Tennessee, Dr. Von Trapp* was one of these professors. Students who had survived his Western Civilization class told tales about him to other students much like the ones Marines tell of Parris Island: “I’ve been through Von Trapp’s Western Civ. class. It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

When I took his class as a sophomore, Dr. Von Trapp was well into his seventh decade. He had quite a reputation, and rumor had it (probably false) that he had been fired from an Ivy League school because too many of his students failed. There were at least 60 students in my class, and the course also required meeting once a week in a small-group “lab” where his graduate assistant (who was equally menacing) would remind us of our inadequacies as students of history. If Dr. Von Trapp knew the name of even one of the students in the class, I would have been surprised.

During the first week of class, I noticed that as he lectured, Dr. Von Trapp would read from some sort of yellowed documents. One time, after class, I approached the lectern and glanced more closely at the documents. The aged paper looked like parchment, but upon closer inspection I saw that it was handwritten notebook paper. Von Trapp didn’t so much lecture from notes as he did read from a well-worn script.

Things didn’t get any better when it came time for mid-term exams. I happened to be one of only six students (out of sixty in the class) to pass the mid-term. I and a few others made a D, and one curve-spoiler made an A. The rest hovered around the class average of 37 percent. Amid much turmoil, cursing, and near-fainting, the class soon learned that Dr. Von Trapp was granting a reprieve in the form of a re-take, averaging the two grades.

All these elements would seem to warrant a foreboding outlook for my education in Western Civilization. However, even with Dr. Von Trapp’s detachment from the students, his lectures that were apparently as old as the history he taught, and his draconian graduate assistant, something remarkable happened: I learned history.

In many ways, it didn’t make sense. By most accounts, Dr. Von Trapp did everything wrong. He didn’t know the students he taught from the man in moon. His “trial by failure” grading system bordered on the absurd, and everyone knows that the “read straight from a text” style of public speaking is more than just a little passé.

Von Trapp, however, did one thing right: he loved what he taught. Von Trapp had a contagious enthusiasm for the subject he taught, and this passion more than compensated for areas in which he was lacking. Even after more than ten years, I can still remember with much precision Dr. Von Trapp standing at the lectern, reading from his yellowed manuscript describing how the Greeks “SSSSACKED Troy!” When he spoke about historical events, you felt as if he had lived it himself.

Indeed, Dr. Von Trapp spoke of all the places mentioned in the history books with firsthand knowledge. He had stood on Hadrian’s Wall and had done excavations in Rome. When he talked about those places, and the events that happened there, he was also taking us there and placing us on the scene. There were moments when he spoke so fervently of the events of the past that he seemed as if he would burst the seams of his tweed suit.

Dr. Von Trapp’s passion was infectious, and provoked an interest that made my own study both enjoyable and enlightening. I survived the class with a decent, but not great, grade. I learned far more in Von Trapp’s class than I did from the teacher I had for Western Civ. II, who gave me a better grade, but acted as if she didn’t really want to be in the classroom.

In the case of my sophomore Western Civilization class, it was enthusiasm had a direct bearing upon learning. While Von Trapp didn’t outwardly appear to care one iota about his students or their names, he did care deeply about his subject, which in this day and age seems rare.

Enthusiasm in teaching affects success in learning. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should rip pages out of textbooks or other such Robin Williams antics, but we do owe it to our students to convince them that what we teach is something worth learning. Otherwise, they’ll just change the subject.

*Yes, the name has been changed to protect the guilty/innocent.

This post is part of the Teachers & Teaching series, which can be found listed in its entirety here.