Excellence in teaching – Classical edition (Professor Drew Wilburn)

Many liberal arts colleges pride themselves on their instructional excellence and the student-instructor relationships that can develop as a result of the low student-teacher ratio.  During my first semester here at Oberlin I had the chance to sit in on all of the 101-level language courses and reviewed them in a previous blog post.  Last week was Open Classroom Week sponsored by CTIE, and Steve Volk discussed the importance and motivation that can come from visiting colleagues’ courses.

This semester I’ve been sitting in on Professor Drew Wilburn’s Magic and Mystery class and I’m loving it.  I have both an undergraduate degree and a graduate minor in Classics and my current research interests include material culture in Sicily, so the idea of getting back to my classical roots was very exciting for me.  I was so happy that Professor Wilburn allowed me in to his class because of the subject matter, but participating in the class has also reinforced how wonderful the Oberlin faculty really is.

Over the years, Professor Wilburn has really perfected this particular course.  He incorporates so many sound pedagogical approaches but also really embraces the liberal arts method by demonstrating the connections between what we’re studying and how it applies more broadly to students’ lives.  As someone who studies teaching and learning, Professor Wilburn’s class is providing first-hand exposure to best practices in liberal arts education.  Here are some of the most impressive things I’ve taken from Professor Wilburn’s class so far this semester.

Daily learning goals.  Learning goals are a hot topic these days, especially here at Oberlin while we go through out reaccreditation process, and Professor Wilburn is the first person I’ve seen who begins his class every day with them.  He organizes with a supplementary power point presentation that he posts so students can revisit it later, and the first content slide of every presentation includes the daily learning goals.  Now that the first exams is coming up, his recommended study aid is “go back and study the learning goals for each class meeting.”  It’s brilliant.  It holds him accountable for staying on topic and the students accountable for making sure they understand the reading and how it applies to his lecture and the group discussions.

Work for the students.  On the first day of class, there were something like 65 students (and 2 professors who were looking to sit in) for a class that had 30 seats available.  Professor Wilburn was overwhelmed; he had no idea this particular course would be in such high demand and requested a few days to come up with a solution.  And what a solution he found!  Another of his courses was under enrolled, and he was able to close that course and add a second section of the Magic and Mystery course to accomodate all of the students who wanted to take the class.  The students appreciated it so much and it encouraged every single student to trust that Professor Wilburn would always work in their best interest.

Daily group work.  There are several components of Professor Wilburn’s class that are daily occurrences, but they rarely show up in the same order.  He incorporates short lectures, textual analysis, small group discussion, and “unstructured” class discussion each day.  Students know that they have to stay awake, engaged, come prepared to participate, and that makes for lively discussions.  Additionally, allowing students to work in small groups each day allows for unique questions to arise and it’s really impressive how students pull in correlations from their other classes (in and outside of the Classics department) into the discussions of Magic and Mystery.

Keeping things in perspective.  As an instructor myself, I hate when assessment season rolls around.  Students freak out at the idea of being “tested” and, let’s be honest, “judged.”  But Professor Wilburn get’s it.  As we approach the first exam for the course, he repeatedly reassures students that he’s not looking to make them fail, he’s not looking to trick them, he’s not even looking to see how much they memorized.  He’s interested in how they are digesting the information he’s presenting and how well they are able to make connections between the themes of the class and specific texts and events.  He discussed his approach to assessment and how he is fallible so there may be mistakes (which is 100% acceptable from him and them), that he believes that students should and can get 100% on his exams, and even told one particularly nervous student that they may be placing too much importance on the “testing” component and not enough on the “understanding” component.  I loved it – they were words I’ve used so many times in my own classroom!

I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester and can’t wait to see what else is in store for this amazing course.


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