Columns

Michael Bechek ’10: Principles and the professor

What an old textbook says about how teaching and learning have changed

Professor Ivory Franklin Frisbee seems like a know-it-all. He is.

“The Greek alphabet has twenty-four letters: — “

So begins, impatiently, the ancient book I first checked out of Rockefeller Library last summer, Professor Frisbee’s “Beginner’s Greek Book for Schools,” published in 1898. His imperiousness practically reeks from its pages — making them seriously uninviting despite Frisbee’s insistence that they are “printed in large type, and in every way made legible and attractive.”

As I soon discovered, Frisbee teaches Ancient Greek about as engagingly as a flight attendant does seatbelt-buckling. He emphasizes rules, classification and rigor of every kind. It must have been clear to students of Frisbee’s how their professor dressed himself in the morning: “Sweaters are divided into three categories. …”

One imagines the late-19th century classroom, though, to be a severe sort of place where the rules, rote memorization and endless repetition that Frisbee demands seemed almost natural. It must have been, at any rate, quite a different environment from the typical Brown lecture hall today, where professors so clearly feel reminded that they must try to be interesting as well as informative — animated slides and streaming video their tools for entertaining.

Ivory Frisbee is most definitely not interesting, and his approach to teaching has nothing to do with winning him love and admiration (though he does swear that “all of the methods have been for years tested by the author in the class room, and have been found most efficient”). It’s clear he never had to be graded by his students on evaluation forms like the ones I received this semester, which invited me to rate the instructor’s “enthusiasm” and answer questions like, “To what extent did this course develop your understanding of the diversity of people and cultures?”

What seemed so strange to me about Frisbee is that he treats the student like you would treat a broken limb — something to be adjusted, set and immobilized without debate or introduction. You don’t begin, Frisbee reasons, by persuading a fire of the merits of water.
Frisbee represents the anti-Brown. He would never have accepted the idea that the first day of class should be spent discussing the benefits of classical studies, how the professor can be reached by telephone on the weekends and why students should bother to show up to Greek on Mondays rather than that laid-back seminar.

There is a popular idea that higher education should be treated like any other service provided to consumers. Considering the price-tag on a Brown degree, this seems justified — and indeed, the modern university accepts it, if only tacitly. For four years, I have been in complete control.

I enjoy this state of things — a lot. I have near complete freedom to choose my courses. I can take hard classes if I’m feeling motivated, easy classes if I’m feeling lazy. I can avoid taking classes with professors who are tough graders. I can study at the library, if I so choose, on a completely nocturnal schedule. Having this freedom is part of growing up, part of learning how to make good choices, how to be a responsible adult. Brown treats its students, for the most part, as autonomous human beings.

Frisbee’s book reminded me that it wasn’t always this way. The student did not have so much control. Sometimes, he was treated like a fractured tibia by eager professionals. Why, I had to wonder?

I really think Frisbee cares about his students, as much as he talks over their heads, as though addressing a concerned guardian. No less than a good professor today, Frisbee has a “course objective” and does not lose sight of it. The stated purpose of Frisbee’s book is “the preparation for reading Xenophon’s Anabasis.” And the text, “if rightly used,” Frisbee promises, “will arouse greatly the pupil’s zeal for future acquisition.” The simplicity of the Frisbee textbook is as elegant as it is maddening: “The pupil is led to classify and assimilate (information) by its necessary relations. Thus in all of his work, he is led to observe, to think and to form his own conclusions.”

Classify, assimilate, graduate.

Ancient Greek really is hard to learn if you’re not forced to. My “zeal for acquisition,” shamefully, did not far outlast that July afternoon, and I accept my degree not in the least prepared to read Xenophon’s Anabasis. I don’t know if I would be happier now if I had been forced by Ivory Franklin Frisbee to read his book beyond the first 15 pages. But I would know Greek.

We are the new consumers. Frisbee had his “principles of pedagogy,” but they’re unappealing. Today’s professor accepts a more ecumenical approach to teaching and learning. In the syllabus for a class I took this year, one of my professors wrote that “a teacher must utilize a repertoire of skills to engage and inform students, cognizant that varied background, education and experience contribute to how individuals learn.” He described learning as “the acquisition and integration of sensory information.” 
“Exercises,” wrote Frisbee, “must be repeated until the pupil thoroughly grasps the form of the Greek sentence.”

I’ll soon have to return Frisbee’s book — unfinished — no doubt feeling a bit guilty, like I’ve dropped a class. But I do wish, when the next reader picks up Frisbee’s old book, that he or she is dedicated enough to someday read Xenophon’s Anabasis. I hear great things.

Michael Bechek ’10, from Needham, Mass., was managing editor of The Herald in 2009.