Successful College Teaching Begins with Throwing Away Your Lecture Notes

A book to revolutionize college teaching, by Calvin Luther Martin, PhD, a (now retired) professor of history at Rutgers University.

The book starts with a jaw-dropping observation:

My little brother just got his PhD and his first college teaching job. He’s an expert in political science and knows almost nothing about teaching — and that, I tell you cheerfully, is typical of professors beginning their teaching careers.  If you’re not a college professor this probably sounds crazy.

It is crazy, of course. But it’s one of those charming traditions of our profession, along with tenure, academic freedom, and bizarre costumes at graduation ceremonies. What can one do about it?

Martin’s answer was to publish this slender, practical and compassionate teaching guide for rookie professors.  It has another, subversive purpose — as a rallying cry for undergraduates who are paying through the nose for stupendously bad teaching from not only beginning professors but senior faculty as well. With American colleges and universities charging well over $60,000 a year in tuition and fees, it’s time for students to grab the bullhorn and proclaim:  “We’re fed up with mortgaging our lives for your lousy teaching!”

Remember the classes you blew off or snoozed through because they bored you to death?  Or you failed to see their relevance to anything except, possibly, earning an income after graduation?  How about the week from hell when, suddenly, in all your courses you were subjected to the Midterm Exam week? (Cramming the night before.  Forgetting it all within 48 hours.)  Midterms are of course nothing more than academic waterboarding, repeated at the end of the semester in another week called Final Exams.

Martin demolishes these teaching methods.

“He who would assume to teach,” declared Walt Whitman, “may well prepare himself body and mind. . . . He shall surely be question’d beforehand by me with many and stern questions.”  Foremost being:  “Who are you indeed who would talk . . . to America?” (emphasis added, Leaves of Grass).  The same question Martin asks of his professorial colleagues.

Martin’s classes enrolled hundreds, including auditors from the community and other universities, and occasionally other Rutgers faculty.  Yet, as these comments attest, this multitude remained a small, intimate group on a magical journey of learning together.  (No they didn’t all get A’s.  Signed by initials, the comments were gleaned pretty much randomly from thousands of course evaluations Martin collected over 20 years of teaching Rutgers undergraduates.  They are most easily read on your desktop.)

Click here to read the front matter and preface, and here to read the About the Author page.

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What readers are saying about the book . . .

“This book is as generous as it is imaginative.  If I had read it when I first started as a faculty member back in 1970, I would have been a far better teacher.”

Judith R. Shapiro, PhD, President and Professor of Anthropology Emerita of Barnard College, former Provost and Professor of Anthropology Emerita at Bryn Mawr College, currently President of the Teagle Foundation.  Dr. Shapiro is the author of “Community of Scholars, Community of Teachers” (Univ. of Chicago Press & Prickly Paradigm Press, 2016), among other works.

“I received Calvin Martin’s new book on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning I was telling everyone I met (colleagues, students, houseguests, neighbors) about his meditation on the teaching vocation. A week later I’m still at it and I don’t aim to stop. His message? Love your students. Trust them. Inspire them with your compassion and grace as well as your knowledge. My fellow professors, this is wisdom!”

Christopher Vecsey, PhD, Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities and Native American Studies in the Department of Religion, and Chair, Department of Religion, Colgate University.

“With inspiration, insight, and thoughtful analysis Calvin Martin gets to the heart of the matter—how to avoid deadening instruction. He shows professors how to move away from what he calls freeze-dried, loaded-with-preservatives, prepackaged lectures.  Engaging prose and personal tales of teaching lace with brilliant, concrete ideas for engaging students’ hearts and minds.

“I wish every instructor in higher education would read this book, no matter their experience!”

Darcia Narvaez, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of Notre Dame, Fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives (Notre Dame), former Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.  Her book, “Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom” (Norton 2014) is the winner of the Expanded Reason Award given by  the University Francisco de Vitoria and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation to recognize innovation in scientific research and academic programs based on Benedict XVI’s proposal to broaden the horizons of reason.

“Apparently, when Calvin Martin finished graduate school no one told him he could stop graduating, so he has just kept doing it. In books like ‘The American Indian and the Problem of History’ he graduated from his role as a respected authority on the socioeconomic history of the North American fur trade to clear-eyed witness to the magnitude of human and ecological destruction that issued from one of the greatest catastrophes in recorded history. In ‘The Way of the Human Being,’ Martin graduated to philosopher, offering a solemn meditation on the greatness of this loss—in both cultural and spiritual terms.

“Now, he’s done it again in ‘Successful College Teaching.’ From a seasoned, successful Professor of History at Rutgers, he has graduated to professor of teaching, itself. This latest piece is full of concrete, practical advice like visiting a room to acclimate yourself to it before you have to teach in it. Calling this book a pithy field manual for college teaching—though it is certainly that—would hardly do it justice. Martin has also filled his little white book with deeply personal and authentic reflections about college teaching as a vocation and spiritual discipline; all based upon his own teaching experiences over a long career. He takes time to explain the importance of establishing trust with students, as well as how to go about it. How else can you learn these lessons, except the hard way?

“If I had had this book before I started teaching college, I could have learned some of these lessons less painfully. Had I been asked for an alternative title, I might have suggested ‘Successful College Teaching—A Guide for the Perplexed.’”

— Curt Devlin, former Teaching Fellow in Philosophy at Tulane University, currently philosopher-in-residence, Cape Cod.