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.

“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, pre-packaged 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), and 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 the 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.

“Martin’s Successful College Teaching is wonderful! For me it was a stroll down memory lane, from my first shaky year of teaching to my present grandmotherly duties. Although the book is written chiefly for college teachers, I strongly recommend it for everyone. Whether siblings, parents, grandparents, friends or relatives—we are all teachers of those who are still finding their way in this complicated world. We should take this responsibility seriously and generously. Martin’s compassionate words are a guide and inspiration.”

— Florence Shepard, PhD, Professor Emerita and former Chairperson, Department of Education, University of Utah. Professor Shepard is the author of numerous books and is responsible for bringing to press numerous unpublished manuscripts by her late husband, the philosopher Paul Shepard.

“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.

“In a brilliant conversation with the reader, Martin explains why teachers must shed the tyranny of lockstep learning and revive education by heart to heart, soul to soul engagement with students. An essential, transformative book for teacher and student alike.”

— G.A. Bradshaw, PhD, is the Executive Director and Founder of The Kerulos Center and author of Elephants on the Edge (Yale), among other books.

“In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia wrote a “Rule”—instructions, guidelines, and teaching for abbots and other members of monastic communities. To this day the Rule of Benedict remains the fundamental document for Benedictine and Trappist monasteries. The approach Calvin Martin takes in his latest book, Successful College Teaching, is similar to Benedict’s.

“Like Benedict, Martin emphasizes the meaning of being human, in integrated relationship with oneself, others, nature and God. Like Benedict, Martin urges teachers to treat students with concern, compassion and discipline, as a good abbot does with a community of monks. He affirms that ‘teaching is a spiritual exercise’ where values and ethics are a consistent subtext, where compassion, courage and humility support the creation of a community that mutually builds a story of interest to all humanity.

“Teaching, says Martin, is art, an exercise of imagination and creativity. ‘Teaching is drama.’ ‘To teach is to give a concert.’ He supports these dimensions of teaching with solid examples from 20 years of teaching experience.

“If poor education is a failure of civilization’s imagination and will, then Successful College Teaching is required reading for recovering the inner life of teaching, not just for college professors but anyone who teaches—and that means everyone. Being a teacher is everyone’s sacred responsibility. I like to imagine that Successful Teaching, like Rule, will also be read and followed for 1500 years.”

— Robert G. Toth was Executive Director of the Thomas Merton Institute for Contemplative Living in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1998 till his retirement in 2010.

“Martin’s book is a template for joyful, meaningful knowledge transmission, whatever the student’s age. He creates a pedagogical map of tenderness and faith. As Edith Cobb observed of artist Paul Klee, Martin ‘writes with a pen dipped in love’; he uses our ‘most precious tool, compassionate intelligence.’

“Martin rights an educational world now dangerously out of kilter; the depth and precision of his reflections safeguard the sanity of teachers and their students.

“Throw away those lecture notes from previous years, or prescribed lesson plans from publishers with no teaching experience. Remember your inner storyteller, who will tell stories that establish community through flexible, tensile story bonds. Stories, like play, have no half-life.”

— Melissa Heckler, MS ECE, MLS, is a volunteer educator for the Kalahari Peoples Fund.  Melissa Heckler is the recipient of the International Story Bridge Award from the National Storytelling Association, the Overcoming the Odds Award for work with homeless children, and the Bank Street Distinguished Alumni Award. She retired in 2016 after 25 years as a teacher-librarian. She continues her work with the Ju⎪’hoansi.

“Calvin Martin has produced a beautifully written short manifesto on teaching. This is not some bland collection of do’s and don’ts, nor a pedantic manual of “surefire” guidelines for success in the classroom. No such thing exists. Rather, this little book with a big title is a passionate exhortation to abandon any formulaic notions of teaching, once and for all. It is an ardent plea to create a teaching environment in which genuine learning, critical thinking, and natural curiosity can flourish; to create an environment based on mutual trust, empathy, and compassion.

“The book is an iconoclastic rejection of such conventional tools as canned lectures, mid-terms, final exams, and term papers, as inimical to the kind of learning that lasts a lifetime—real knowledge. Martin urgently recommends a return to the tools which have proven themselves effective since the origin of teaching, itself—drama, storytelling, and inspiration. If you truly aspire to be the best teacher you can be, you must read this book.

“Don’t be fooled by the title, Successful College Teaching. Based upon my own experience as someone who has spent a lifetime teaching a wide variety of subjects at different levels, including college, I can assure you that most of what Martin has to say is relevant to teaching just about anything.

“On a personal level, I enjoyed Martin’s storytelling. He sprinkles the book liberally with vignettes drawn from his experiences across a long and distinguished teaching career at the university level along with a small Eskimo seminary and several state penitentiaries.

“Martin doesn’t tell stories to be self-aggrandizing or regale readers with war stories from the classroom. They are thoughtfully chosen accounts of both great success and abject failure, based on Martin’s deeply personal experiences. They are told in the first person, always pointed, and often poignant. His voice is laden with authenticity. Anyone with even a modicum of teaching experience will recognize them as true—on so many different levels. Each of Martin’s stories is situated within a philosophical meditation, and told in a manner that concretely illustrates his point. This is a signature element of his style.

“At the same time, his storytelling serves to demonstrate his larger point about the power of stories to engage, to inspire, and to teach. Instead of an abstract discussion of teaching methodology or principle—as if teaching were a settled science—Martin gives us his ars pedagogica. By its light, the uniquely human art of successful teaching must come from both the head and the heart.

“Despite its size, this book is remarkably rich and multidimensional in scope. On one level, Martin’s book can and should be read as a quiet but sustained indictment of our education system, from kindergarten to grad school. Martin describes a system that has come to institutionalize the soulless practices which are the absolute antithesis of good teaching. This is the system that emphasizes memorization and regurgitation of facts, instead of nourishing the natural inquisitiveness evident in every child before they arrive at school.

“Anyone who believes that learning and aptitude can be accurately measured with such blunt instruments as standardized testing, SAT scores, and bell curves, needs to read this book. All those self-anointed experts seated on school committees, education boards, and government agencies; those who believe they know how teaching should be done (especially those who have never actually faced the responsibility of teaching a single class of real students for a semester), will find this book highly illuminating. And, of course, this book should be on the mandatory reading list for every dean and department chairperson who has succumbed to the mythology that the most published professors make the best teachers. All are guilty of perpetuating a system of education which is gradually, but steadily eroding both the innate desire for, and any expectation of, learning among students. By the time they get to college, most are victims of “battered student” syndrome.

“The result of this long-term erosion, Martin faithfully explains, is an enormous challenge for college teachers, who must first repair the damage done. Each new class brings a group of students who have long endured the enervating exposure to this “teaching” system. Here, Martin’s guidance is particularly relevant to college teachers—and, most especially, new ones. You must begin by acting like a plastic surgeon who must remove the scarring and necrotic tissue in order to promote healing and restore healthy growth. This means a delicate and sometimes painful process of recognizing students’ fears and insecurities, establishing trust and rapport with them, as well as extending empathy, reassurance, and a sense of belonging. In short, you have to establish a community within your classroom. As Martin warns, doing this is no mean feat and requires skills that cannot be taught. They must be learned through practice, with no guarantee of success. It requires a great leap of faith to throw away your notes and really teach. Nonetheless, reanimating wonder at the world and a desire to learn is the indispensable first step for learning. It cannot be skipped or shortchanged. If you are willing to take this leap, this book is a primer on reigniting the flames of curiosity, desire, and expectation for learning–in your students as well as yourself.

“There is another audience for this book which Martin may have overlooked. If you are a high school student prospecting for colleges, read this book before visiting any of them. If you do, you will learn something far more valuable for choosing the right one than all the statistics in all the college handbooks. You will learn to recognize how a real college learning environment looks.

“When you do visit, make sure classes are in session and insist on sitting in on a few of them. Look for the kind of passionate, engaged teaching Martin describes in this book. Look for students who are actually enjoying their classes, who seem excited to go to class and who think their teachers are awesome. If you don’t find them, don’t go to that school—no matter how highly ranked or prestigious. There is no successful college learning without inspired college teaching. Learning this could make the difference between four of the best or the most miserable years of your life.

“Calvin Martin claims his aspiration for this book is that it may someday become a desk reference for new college teachers, as commonplace and useful as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. On this point he may have underestimated the potential audience for this little white book.”

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