Teaching Moments and Lessons for Life

Rooted in a strong liberal arts tradition, Hamilton's faculty ushers students into the future
By Helen S. Schwartz and Donald Challenger


Early in his career, Austin Briggs was talking with a legendary older colleague, George Nesbitt '24, about how to be more effective in the classroom. "Open the windows and close the doors," Nesbitt told him. It turned out to be pretty good advice. Briggs, like Nesbitt before him, retired as the Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English and one of the College's most esteemed faculty members. Recently, as Briggs wrapped up a James Joyce seminar to conclude a half-century on the Hill, he mused about teaching, its importance to Hamilton's liberal arts tradition and the current state of the profession.

"Everyone keeps asking me what has changed in my 50 years here," he said. "I'm interested in what's changing, but I'm more fascinated by what hasn't changed."

Much the same could be said of the College and its current faculty. Interviews with dozens of professors, students, alumni and administrators reveal a keen appreciation for innovation and exploration in the open curriculum, a regard for diverse perspectives both at Hamilton and in off-campus programs, and a sense that the student-teacher relationship — still the heart of the matter, after all — may itself be changing in some ways, largely for the better.

But those interviews also reveal a bedrock belief in continuity, a conviction even among students and younger faculty members that teaching and learning at the Hamilton of the 21st century bear a remarkable resemblance to what has happened here for generations. Students are drawn to intensive, collaborative learning in small classes and labs. Alumni look back with gratitude (and often the relief that follows a close call) on demanding lessons in writing, speaking and research. Professors value the collegiality and the interdisciplinary conversation — what Briggs calls "that sense of belonging to an intellectual community" — that continue to anchor teaching and scholarship on the Hill.

They also understand that their predecessors have set the bar high and that they are in some ways measured by the past. "Hamilton has a long, rich history," says Associate Professor of Theatre Mark Cryer. "There is a sense of responsibility that we as faculty carry with us every day to maintain that excellence…. You want to be a strong link in that historical chain."

Many elements of good teaching are complex, changing from discipline to discipline and evolving from one generation to the next. Others are matters of personal style. But some, as Nesbitt knew, are simple. Not every classroom window on campus opens these days, but the need to energize students and keep them focused remains a constant. So does the need to engage them one-on-one. And a remarkable proportion of Hamilton professors, asked to reflect on teaching, prefer to talk about learning—their own. Assistant Professor of Psychology Tara McKee, for instance, says that when she arrived six years ago, she was "terrified that someone was going to ask a question I couldn't answer."When it happened though, she realized she could use such moments to enlist her students in research, turning learning moments into teaching ones.

Steven Yao, assistant dean of faculty for diversity initiatives and associate professor of English, says that the drive to continue learning is crucial to teaching: "The more we can show that we, too, are regularly confronting questions we don't already know the answers to," he says, "the better we serve our students."


The legacy of two centuries

In some ways, teaching excellence is being continually redefined at Hamilton, but the broad liberal arts ideal — the conviction that teaching is less the conveyance of a specific body of knowledge than it is the modeling of intellectual activity and behavior — can be traced to the College's first moments. On Dec. 3, 1812, Azel Backus, Hamilton's first president, made a declaration in his Inaugural Discourse that would not be out of place today:

Let it never be imagined then that the sole object of education is to make youth acquainted with languages, sciences and arts…. An attention to order and the early formation of habits of industry and investigation, I venture to assert, are of more importance than mere knowledge.

One hundred and twenty-six years later, another Hamilton president, William Harold Cowley, used his own 1938 inaugural address and a subsequent article in The Journal of Higher Education to trace a long educational and cultural struggle between the forces of "intellectualism" and "holoism." The former philosophy, he charged, decreed that "education is intellectual training alone." It bred student alienation and academic tunnel vision. The latter philosophy — Cowley's and Hamilton's — held that "the purpose of the college is the training of the whole student," including but not limited to "intellectual excellence." Cowley's was an eloquent defense of the liberal arts tradition at the residential college, deeply dependent on faculty members who were "not only thorough scholars in their specialties" but also were "broadly educated" and "highly skilled teachers."

Even Cowley conceded that this balance was a demanding ideal, however, and the exponential growth of knowledge and subdivision of disciplines in the 70 years since has done little to make the liberal arts faculty's mission any easier. Jean D'Costa, the Leavenworth Professor of English emerita who retired in 1998 after nearly two decades on the Hill, says a key moment of transition came in the early 1980s, when pressure increased on faculty members to publish more regularly and new teachers were hired in part on that basis. "It was part of a great academic sea change," D'Costa says. "But it was much more noticeable at small colleges such as Hamilton."

A further impetus for change came at about the same time, with the 1978 merger of Hamilton and Kirkland College, which had in its decade of existence pioneered a number of academic trends—sometimes in conjunction with Hamilton, sometimes on its own—that are now considered crucial to Hamilton's academic identity: small, informal, discussion-based classes; an across-the-curriculum approach to writing; a focus on interdisciplinary coursework; and a strong, interactive student-teacher bond.

"There is no question that the Hamilton of today is a marvelous meld of the Kirkland and Hamilton that I knew in the mid-'70s,"Charter Trustee Susan Skerritt K'77 told students and faculty at last spring's Class & Charter Day. "… If the two colleges had not merged, Hamilton would not be as strong an institution as it is now."

Today, Hamilton faculty members are accomplished teachers who also are asked to do substantial research and scholarship. "There is a balance between teaching and scholarship," D'Costa says, "and I think on the whole that Hamilton has managed to find a balance point." The classroom part of the equation remains clear: "Teaching at Hamilton is the sine qua non," Yao says. "You can't not be a good teacher here." And Leslie North, the coordinator of health professions advising and the Summer Science Research Program, tells prospective students that there are "three good reasons to come to Hamilton: the faculty, the faculty, the faculty."

The research component of the job can be more problematic. It's crucial for professional advancement and tenure, so many professors reserve one day a week for their own work; others devote summers to it. One best-of-both-worlds approach is to tackle projects that can be incorporated into one's teaching. "It is a win-win scenario for me and students," says Julio Videras, assistant professor of economics, "because I am better able to communicate my enthusiasm if I am teaching material that I find exciting." Sally Cockburn, associate professor of mathematics, agrees. "One summer I mentored a student in mathematical philosophy," she recalls. "We looked at the question of why math works so well in the real world when it was devised in our heads…. I learned an awful lot about the subject,my student learned an awful lot about the subject, and I'm incorporating all that I learned into my seminar for next fall."

On the other hand, Cockburn and others point out that in many disciplines, even the top undergraduates don't yet have the training to take part in peer-reviewed research. "The ideal at a place like this is doing research work with students that leads to joint faculty-student publication," says Associate Professor John Bartle, chair of the Department of German and Russian Languages and Literatures, who also directs the Russian Studies Program and the English for Speakers of Other Languages Program. "Of course, there are more opportunities to do that in some fields than in others. Perhaps we in the humanities should be a little more creative in doing that, but it is a challenge."

Ultimately, most professors make a virtue of necessity when it comes to striking a professional balance. "Your research helps your teaching, but we all know that if you're going to have to grade papers, you're not going to read that latest article or revise that latest draft of the article that you're writing," says Doug Ambrose, associate professor of history. "And that's what you have to do."

It's a worthwhile trade, most say, because the resources, the learning environment and the institutional support on the Hill continue to embody the best of the liberal arts tradition. "What is clear about Hamilton as an institution,"Videras says, "is that it relies on the extraordinary commitment and loyalty of alumni and employees. This commitment and loyalty create a great and sobering sense of responsibility to the institution that motivates everyone to do well, to do better."


The keys to the classroom

If the legacy is solemn, the dramatis personae of faculty members need not be. Professor of Computer Science Rick Decker promotes his department to prospective students as "the most fun department on campus" and likens some aspects of a teacher's style to those of a stand-up comic. "You have to listen to yourself and gauge the reaction of your audience," he says. "It's a highly specialized performance." Associate Professor of Philosophy Todd Franklin likes "to think of teaching in the classroom as improvisational, along the lines of jazz." Associate Professor of English Naomi Guttman believes that "part of what makes a good teacher also makes a good performer: Come as prepared as you can be, but be willing to improvise and let that preparation go, depending on what gets thrown your way."

Others, however, resist the idea of teaching as a performance—or at least the term itself —even as they acknowledge its spontaneous elements. "I am the same person inside and outside the classroom," says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Camille Jones. "The manner in which I relate to the students and convey the subject at hand relies on my ability to present myself and my own understanding and appreciation of the subject as they really are."Ambrose, too, leaves no room for artifice: "It's a sincere, genuine and in many ways extemporaneous expression of my understanding of the material….What I want them to see is that I'm thinking through this material with them."

But faculty members are in wide agreement that the contemporary classroom is changing in some significant ways as students themselves change. Carol Drogus, professor of government, international student advisor and associate dean of students for off-campus study, has noted a clear evolution in her 19 years at Hamilton. "Students now are much more active participants in class and in their learning," she says. "They expect to have class discussions, and they're disappointed if they don't."

Bartle and Kino Ruth, director of the Maurice Horowitch Career Center, note that "incoming classes are just stronger academically," in Ruth's phrase, but they also point to wider changes in the student body: increasing diversity and women in the majority. "And I think the campus as a whole is more tolerant than it used to be," Ruth says. Bartle, in turn, links some changes at Hamilton to national trends in education— tutoring, exam preparation, "teaching to the task" and the long, competitive application process. The result, he says, is that "today's students tend to want very specific things when they come to a school, and that brings a different mentality altogether."

The strength of that mentality is an unprecedented degree of preparation and focus among students at the College, and many teachers have responded by adopting new content and classroom methods. "I find myself adjusting syllabi, content in the course, recreating at least some part of my courses every year," says Cryer, an acclaimed playwright as well as teacher of theatre. Drogus sees a trend toward even smaller, more participatory classes — long a strength of the College — and "toward more creative, hands-on assignments such as role playing, using case studies, giving people 'thought' questions." She recalls an example from her own government class in which, rather than writing a conventional research paper, students had to design a constitution for a specific nation. In computer science, Decker notes that as more recent generations of students arrive on the Hill with broader knowledge of the field, he is able to devote more course time to collaborative work in small teams.

Says Susan Mason, director of the Education Studies Program and the Oral Communication Center as a well as a lecturer in communication: "This is an exceptional group of students, and they want to be challenged." But Mason also notes that this trend toward "active learning strategies" is part of a larger academic pattern. In the last 20 years or so, she says, "we have so much more information about how people learn and how the brain works, different learning styles and forms of retention."

Disciplines evolve as well, some more quickly than others. Decker notes that computer science has been recognized as a distinct academic field for only about half a century.When he arrived in 1985, there was no conventional curriculum. He and colleague Stuart Hirshfield, now the Stephen Harper Kirner Professor of Computer Science and chair of the Computer Science Department, wrote their own textbooks and engaged in "a lot of improvisation" in the classroom. "The teaching of computer science has been chasing after a moving target for the last 50 years," Decker says.

Many faculty members are quick to add that classroom changes reflect their own evolving skills, too. Heather Buchman, conductor of the College Orchestra and Chamber Music Program and assistant professor of music, arrived at Hamilton in 2001 from a conservatory background and with little conventional teaching experience. "It took me two or three years to take the temperature of the students here and find out where music really does fit into the life of a student who is committed to music performance but is majoring in geology, art history, whatever," she says. "What I've learned is how to respond to different individuals." Jones, too, says that in advanced classes, she has "become more attentive and responsive to the particular interests and dispositions of the individual students," even allowing them to "guide how I present the course." And Bartle recalls that he was "more nervous and tended to lecture a lot" early in his career. "Now, I tend to look for ways to get students to talk in some way, shape or form."

While better, more highly motivated students clearly make for better teaching, some faculty members see an occasional downside. "The students now are generally more serious and studious than they were when I arrived" 11 years ago, says Guttman, who teaches creative writing as well as literature courses, "but they also seem a little too preoccupied with career." Cockburn feels a similar ambivalence in math. "It's good that the department is getting majors who are very focused and know what sort of courses they want to take," she says. "On the other hand, I sometimes find that students are not willing to explore as much as I'd like them to." Given the level of academic expectation at Hamilton, students can also obsess over grades. Franklin notes that after the first papers of the semester are returned in his philosophy classes, he invariably gets a visit from a student "very distraught about the grade that he or she has received."He offers reassurances that continued effort will pay off —and keeps a box of tissues handy, with more in his closet "so that I can replenish my stock."

The Career Center's Ruth believes a fixation on the future is inevitable. "Not that it hasn't always been there, but now, especially for $45,000 a year, parents and students are more interested in career possibilities," he says. Still, he adds, "I would argue that what we do well, which is classical liberal arts skill development, is as valid as it has ever been — even more valid in today's world."


Helping students find their voice

The is also broad agreement across the faculty that clear, effective writing and speaking remain at the core of Hamilton's educational mission — as they have in one way or another since the 1830s, when Hamilton students founded The Talisman, the first U.S. college magazine to be published outside of New England, and the 1840s, when the Rev. Henry Mandeville arrived on campus to teach rhetoric and elocution and published his Elements of Reading and Oratory. Some of his successors, regardless of discipline, see the teaching of writing as one of their strongest suits. Bartle says that "working with students one-on-one with their writing" is "my real strength as a teacher." McKee makes it a point of commitment: "I take it as my personal mission to make students better writers. You can actually see the progression over the course of a semester."

With students required to take three writing-intensive courses in order to graduate—among more than 250 such courses offered at the College—writing skills are as critical to the contemporary sciences and social sciences as they are to the humanities. "As in anything, you need to communicate your ideas clearly," says Assistant Professor of Biology Mike McCormick. "Most of my comments are geared toward economy, concise, precise writing and learning the vocabulary of science." Jones speaks similarly of chemistry. "I have very high standards for writing assignments in my laboratory courses," she says. "I have held positions in both industry and government, and know first-hand that these attributes are highly prized in these arenas."

Videras and McKee point out that communication skills are closely linked to research in their fields, economics and psychology. Judy Owens-Manley, associate director for community research at the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center and a lecturer in government, makes a similar case for the research carried out through the Levitt Center. Sophisticated writing and presentation skills, they say, help students to do precise, professional-level work as undergraduates. In turn, learning to apply quantitative methods and to collect and analyze data lead to more effective writing and presentations.

Oral presentations remain essential components of most senior projects and many other courses. And while Mason, director of the Oral Communication Center, notes that there has been a growing academic discussion about their importance and value, an emphasis on speaking "never really went away, at least among students and their parents," she says. "One of the things we have been able to establish over the past six or seven years is that oral communication is more than public speaking."


Defining the exceptional teacher

Is there an essence of good teaching? A fundamental verity that transcends discipline, era and personal style? Some secret beyond George Nesbitt's doors-and-windows maxim? Well, yes and no. Teachers resist a one-size-fits-all formula, but as they do, the same terms surface with remarkable frequency: passion, care, creativity, a commitment to both students and one's discipline. For McCormick, "The one quality that would inspire or drive good teachers would be that they care about teaching well and they care about their students." For Cryer, it's "pure and simple, communication." For Ambrose, "What good teaching ought to produce is wonder in the minds of students."

Buchman speaks of "the importance of presence, learning to truly pay attention — students need to do that, but so do teachers." Guttman, too, speaks of the need across disciplines "to be a good listener and to teach students to observe closely — to read closely, to write with care and attention, to consider the details of an argument. Really, what we all teach is attention to detail and methods of interpreting what we observe." McKee believes that "a good teacher has to be passionate about the material, but also understand that students learn in different ways, and so be creative in presenting that material."

Coaches echo some of those same themes in describing their own standards and ideals. "Athletes have to know you care," says Phil Grady, professor of physical education who recently retired as hockey coach. "They have to have confidence in your knowledge. They have to know that you're going to challenge them to grow and improve. And as a coach, you're going to devote yourself to developing character, to building the total person, not just the athlete."

Cockburn, former head coach of the women's squash team and now an assistant coach, says that while her teaching of mathematics and her coaching are different in many ways, they can also inform each other. Her relationships with her players tend to be deeper and more personal, she says: "I know them on a different level." But she also believes her coaching style is altered by the fact that "I'm a professor and I expect a lot of self-motivation on the part of students.When I assign homework, for example, I don't expect to have to stand over a student's shoulder and yell, 'OK, do problem 20. Go down and give me five push-ups if you get it wrong.' I don't really coach or teach that way."

Like Cockburn, many teachers prefer to talk about what works specifically for them. "There are very good teachers who are wonderful explainers, so perhaps I'm justifying my own disability here," Briggs says. "But I get nervous when I'm explaining something and students are simply writing it down so that they can study it for the final.What I want is to engage them sufficiently so that they start explaining it to themselves. I want to excite their imaginations. I want to transfer their interest in what I'm saying to the text at hand. I don't come into class wanting to explain."

And for Videras, "My principle is to avoid pedagogical routine. It is a modest principle, but it goes a long, long way…. I simply refuse to be bored teaching." Videras, in fact, believes a key to good teaching is a sense of serendipity — the ability to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities in the classroom. He recalls a recent class in which, "out of the blue," a student mentioned that the band Radiohead was allowing fans to download an album from the Web for any amount of money they wanted to pay — or for free if they wished. It inspired a semester-long exercise in "truly collaborative learning," a discussion about the relationship between economics and human behavior:What were the band's motives? Why did many people pay even when they could have the music for free?Why were people in the United States willing to pay more than people in Europe?

"The best moments are usually unplanned,"Videras says. "Of course, this is true about the worst moments as well."


They'll see you after class

"The classroom is still the primary location where learning happens," Ambrose says, but he has also "had great conversations where the kids have benefited tremendously in the dining hall or the pub. That's where it's just like parenting; at some level, just being around matters." So do much more structured facets of education outside the classroom at Hamilton: study abroad and off-campus, community-based service learning, student-faculty research, athletics, even advising, which in an open curriculum such as Hamilton's plays a critical role in students' academic success. All are dependent on the participation, expertise and enthusiasm of faculty members.

One aim of Hamilton, in fact, is to "give students the tools they need" to make their entire college stay an extended education, Dean of Students Nancy Thompson says. "The opportunities outside the classroom that students choose to take advantage of can be significant learning experiences. They can help develop leadership skills and their own sense of what they're interested in and passionate about. So we encourage students to 'own' their overall Hamilton experience."

A time-honored path to that end is study abroad, which officially dates to the creation of the Junior Year in France Program a half-century ago and now includes opportunities to study in China, Spain, India, Japan and many other countries; there are 160 options on Hamilton's list of preferred programs. Faculty members and administrators not only direct or otherwise take part in many of those programs; they also are responsible for working with students to plan their study abroad so that it fits not only their interests but also their academic calendars, often working a year or more in advance.

"One of the things we start with is what students want academically and culturally while they're away," says Drogus, the associate dean. "Do you want a place that is somehow related to your area of study? Then, do you want to have a cultural experience that is very different than what you have in the United States? Do you want something in your comfort zone, or do you want to stretch yourself? We help students think through their options."

Craig Latrell, associate professor and chair of the Theatre Department, who studies Asian performance, has accompanied students to Southeast Asia on Emerson Grants twice in recent years, traveling to Sumatra, Bangkok, Singapore and Borneo with them. "The work we did together and the experience the students had was invaluable as they confronted different cultures," he says. "They always come back changed. Living in other cultures deepens them as people and gives them more experience from which to draw in their creative work."

An appreciation for diversity can be taught much closer to home as well. At the Levitt Center, Owens-Manley works mostly with upper-level students on activities and courses that provide them with practical experience in the community, such as Project SHINE, Students Helping In the Naturalization of Elders. "Community work can be kind of messy, because it's done with real people," Owens-Manley says. "People don't follow scripts." Nevertheless, she says, some students find that community work "validates" their college experience; others are drawn down unexpected career paths such as teaching or working at nonprofits.

"And for a whole, wide range of students," she says, "just being exposed to some kind of diverse cultural experience—such as the refugees and immigrants that we have here in Utica—begins to shape their understanding of the world in a way that wasn't apparent to them before. It ends up being a positive experience for almost everybody."

Such a balance is not struck by magic; it is achieved by the College over many years and through the work of many people. Jean D'Costa recalls that when she began teaching in the 1980s, "I found resistance among many students to entering into experiences that did not belong to their own class and place in American society." Over the next decade, she says, "there was a greater interest in the wider world." She attributes that shift not only to curricular changes in the '80s that introduced such disciplines as women's studies, but also to the growth of Hamilton's study-abroad programs.

Yao notes that diversity on the campus itself is just as crucial to a full educational experience. "And, given that, a diverse faculty is particularly important in that it brings different perspectives to the production of knowledge and research — and therefore to what gets taught," he says. "It changes the range of possible subjects, and it expands the perspectives on more traditional subjects."

Such dimensions give the campus community a wealth of resources that belies its size and setting, faculty members say, and make them eager to become resources themselves — through advising, research collaborations with students and, in Ambrose's phrase, "just being around." Cryer notes that "that seminal moment, that epiphany that can direct a student's life, that may happen in line at Opus, it may happen upstairs in McEwen — you just don't know. But that's one of the joys about teaching at Hamilton. You can teach in all those different spots." And Rick Decker points out that the Computer Science Department, like many, is "small enough so that we know every major and we talk about them constantly…. Here, the fit is exactly what I wanted. The emphasis is on teaching, and the students are your life."


Teaching by reaching across disciplines

It's one thing to dispense pearls of wisdom over coffee or loafing on the library steps; it's another to sit down with an advisee and sweat out a two- or three-year plan that includes provisions for a major, a minor, a semester abroad and a service-learning project, with time left for orchestra, choir or an intercollegiate sport. The absence of core requirements gives students remarkable freedom to plot their own academic paths, yet it also gives them enough uncharted territory to get lost in if they don't receive — and heed — good advice from their faculty advisors and others. "Maybe I'm anal," Cryer says, "but I believe in advising, and I believe an advisor can sometimes make or break a student's four years."

One difficulty in upholding that responsibility, Ambrose says, is that advisors have "no coercive power"—they can coax, pressure and argue, but ultimately students have the right to opt for a "cafeteria style" course selection that circumvents the aims of a "broad, liberal education."Another difficulty, Ambrose and Bartle agree, is that the advising system lacks consistency; some advisors are more "check list oriented" than others, Bartle says. Nevertheless, he says, "Students pretty much uniformly tell me [the open curriculum] is one of the main reasons they came here," and he believes that very few students actually limit their course selection to one or two departments. "We're extremely privileged at Hamilton—students and faculty—and we're given a lot of freedom to carry out our projects and ideas," Bartle says. "…I think we have to live with the system we've created."

What they preach, ultimately, is interdisciplinary thinking — in Guttman's phrase, "the ability to connect ideas" across conventional academic, scientific and artistic boundaries, which she notes is "fundamental to intellectual growth and even to technical innovation." One means toward that end is to teach the subject itself by opening the door to other fields. For example, Latrell points out that "theatre is almost interdisciplinary" in that it draws on psychology, history, art, communications, sociology, anthropology. To teach theatre effectively, he says, one must "be conversant with all these disciplines." But many also note that Hamilton itself is a kind of interdisciplinary laboratory in which exchanges among faculty members enrich the academic conversation and distinguish the College. "One of the joys of being here is the interdisciplinarity of the liberal arts setting," says biologist McCormick. "I really do like the fact that I can pester my colleagues in Chemistry and Physics. I can shuttle between floors [of the Science Center] and ask questions to the Geosciences Department…. There's a freedom to ask questions and explore ideas in a setting like this."

That sense of collaboration and community, among faculty members and between teachers and students, remains at the heart of Hamilton's identity and mission even as it continues to be refined and updated. Yao points out that students at liberal arts colleges now make up less than 5 percent of the national college-going population. "I think it's going to become more and more valuable as it becomes rarer and rarer," he says. "The workforce absolutely needs people who can do a lot of different things."

A number of teachers, seeking to account for the value of a liberal arts education, invoke the left brain/right brain analogy — integrating our capacity for logic, analysis and calculation with our more subjective and creative faculties. "We all know it's more complicated than that," says Buchman, but the metaphor holds: "Creativity is more and more important in the business world, in the economy, in living in general," she says. "As rules and paradigms keep changing, we need to be able to think on our feet in order to direct our lives with creativity and imagination."

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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