Penn encouraged, not silenced, student input
I graduated from Michigan State in 2005, and I had the pleasure of having English professor William Penn about 10 years ago. I remember the class very vividly and still talk about it to this day. We would have extremely difficult pop quizzes consisting of only a handful of questions from the assigned reading. Everyone in the class scored horribly on these quizzes.
It wasn’t until grades came out at the end of the semester that I discovered the truth. The quizzes barely impacted the grade at all. I remember being shocked and relieved. Why would this crazy professor do this to us? I’ll tell you why. He was getting us to pay attention to the material, to participate in class, to expect the unexpected and above all to be prepared for class.
We read books such as Daniel Reveles’ “Enchiladas, Rice, and Beans” and watched movies including David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” We explored all sorts of topics, such as politics, sex and sadomasochism, literature and even fraternity life (Penn once belonged to a fraternity, he said).
One of the more interesting insights Penn made to dissuade me from my belief that fiction is “pointless” was that fiction teaches you about life. As an award-winning author, Penn explained how pieces of his personality and events that happened in his life are integrated into his novels. The characters’ thoughts and feelings often are reflections of the author. Reading good fiction teaches you about people and how they interact. You learn from the life experiences interwoven into the novel.
On the first quiz he gave us, the first question was, “What does the word ‘didactic’ mean?” I had no idea. As I learned later, and never forgot, it means “intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive.” Penn’s goal all along in his class was to provide didactic instruction, NOT to get you to agree with his point of view.
For Penn, part of this means keeping the class entertained, and the other part means putting controversial opinions, thoughts and ideas front and center for the class to discuss. I am saddened that some young, naïve student mistook Penn’s comments from the first day of class as a “lecture” instead of a “discussion.” The last thing Penn ever would want is for you to be frightened into agreeing with him or to agree because you think he will give you a good grade.
In fact, he was adamantly against what he called, “bumper sticker logic”: those people who go through life espousing a particular viewpoint or ideology without having any support for it. The reason I did so well in Penn’s class is because every time I disagreed with him, I articulated my thoughts succinctly, and I made a good argument for why I was right.
The ridiculously hard quizzes, the seemingly disorganized presentation and wide breadth of course material, the humorous life experiences and anecdotes, the intense thought-provoking class discussion… it was certainly unlike every other class I had ever had, but in the end it was everything the professor intended it to be: a didactic experience.
That class taught me how to think critically, helped hone my debate skills and was intensely memorable. That experience served me well in law school, where every day the professors call on you and challenge you to defend your arguments while simultaneously pointing out their weaknesses. In Penn’s class, the argument was never the focus. It was always the underlying logical defense of that argument that would earn his true respect and admiration.
It was a journey, and the destination was not immediately revealed from the outset. I feel sorry that these students will be robbed of that experience. I know part of that class certainly shaped who I am today. I am now an attorney in Michigan, and just wanted to thank Penn for his class.
Ryan McDonough is an MSU alumnus. Reach him at email@example.com.