Skip to main content

 

Teaching: The Dartmouth Way

From Research to Classroom
Miles Blencowe
Miles Blencowe

"I like to take a classic course in physics and bring it to the present by talking about recent research," says Miles Blencowe, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

Blencowe explains that one way he's found to "fire up" students is to talk about what professional researchers are doing. In his introductory courses, for instance, he uses current examples to help explain basic principles.

"In my introductory physics classes, I talk about the work of [Isaac] Newton and [Johannes] Kepler, and the students learn how the planets move around the sun, describing ellipses, and how it all appears to be working systematically, like an intricate clock," he says. "Then I explain that it's not systematic or predictable at all. In fact, it's chaotic and unpredictable."

To illustrate his point, Blencowe tells his students that totally random things occur, such as when an object designated as Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter in July 1994. "The comet had only been recently discovered and we don't exactly know where it came from due to that unpredictability. This is just one example that sparks awareness in students."

Blencowe, whose professional research involves quantum theory and nanoscale systems, also brings a bit of his own work to his classes. In his quantum mechanics for beginners course this past summer, he made an effort to teach his students how the experts study this field. "I wanted them to learn the practitioners' way," he says.

The usual approach is somewhat piecemeal, according to Blencowe. He decided to pursue a more rigorous path, and his students embraced this new technique. Armed with knowledge of quantum mechanics fundamentals, Blencowe's students, to his delight, were able to pursue more in-depth calculations and even dipped into some aspects of quantum information theory, such as quantum teleportation, an advanced topic.

"Seeing that spark of awareness in my students urges me to make my courses interesting," says Blencowe.

"Bringing current research into my lectures keeps me on my toes and it inspires my students."

From Classroom to Research
Barbara Will
Barbara Will

When Associate Professor of English Barbara Will steps into a classroom, she's eager to learn from her students. "Students challenge my thinking," she says. "They offer new perspectives."

Will teaches courses in twentieth-century American literature, and her specialty involves American expatriate writers, such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She says her students often influence her research.

"Students tend to have new insights into experimental novels, which are often difficult to read," she says. "I think it's because younger readers are more open to new themes and are sensitive to the subtleties of this kind of writing."

As an example, Will points to Stein's Ida, which, she says,

is one of Stein's most difficult-to-read novels and even more difficult to understand. However,  a student in Will's class was able to pick up on a theme of twins in this story of a schizophrenic.

"I had approached this work with bafflement," says Will, "and my student illuminated it and stimulated new interest for me. Now the novel has a key and a new meaning."

The intellectual dialogue between students and professor excites Will. Dartmouth students, she says, are open-minded and eager to learn, and they want to show their professors what they think, to share their opinions. The new ideas are constant, which keeps Will alert and always thinking. Conversations with her students elevate her research; they "raise the investigation."

"Research into literary theories and trends can be lonely, but teaching is interactive and motivating," she says. "I love what teaching brings to my research. Whatever I invest in preparing for a lecture, I seem to get something in return."

When Will teaches The Great Gatsby, for instance, she invariably encounters many students who know this work inside out. She says some students have read the book many times. Because the book is full of detail, both teacher and students are rewarded with this kind of scrutiny.

"Talking about this book tends to bring me a lot of insight," Will says. "I have just written an essay on the novel, focusing on a small detail that takes place just before the final scene when Nick Carraway erases an obscenity from the front steps of Gatsby's house. I was led to read and think about the book with that kind of attention from my experience teaching the book in class."

By Susan Knapp

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 7/24/18