'Class Not Dismissed'

Longtime professor Anthony Aveni talks about liberal arts, higher education and what he learned in 50 years of teaching.


November 7, 2014

Anthony Aveni has made a career of science in academe, but in his most recent book, he paints himself first as a teacher. 

Aveni is Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University, where he has taught since 1963. His experiences with college students and fellow academics during the past half-century are the backbone of Class Not Dismissed: Reflections on Undergraduate Education and Teaching the Liberal Arts (University Press of Colorado). Aveni writes on a wide range of topics, from his love of the lecture-style lesson to helping develop a core curriculum. He intersperses tips for college students and aspiring teachers with commentary on the importance of the liberal arts, the purpose of higher education and the worth of a college degree. 

There's a feeling of nostalgia in some of Aveni's stories about past students and research trips to study cultural astronomy in Mexico. But Class Not Dismissed is not a swan song. Aveni writes that he plans to keep teaching as long as there are students he can counsel and guide.

He responded to questions via email about his book, teaching and the liberal arts.

Q: The introduction says you wrote the book because you “felt the need to say something about what academic life is like in practice.” Later on, you write about the anti-college and anti-intellectual crowd that increasingly questions the worth of a degree. Is there a misconception about what actually happens inside academic halls?

A: You bet there is. Most students think it's all about ideas and info getting transmitted to them. They don't realize it's all about process and that the academy is also where ideas and info are created. It's about creation and transmission.

Q: Part of the book explains the evolution of the liberal arts. As the world and colleges and universities have changed, so, too, have the purpose and meaning of the liberal arts. What has remained constant? And will it always be that way?

A: The constant lies in the synthesis of ways of knowing from disparate points of view, even though point of views change. One hundred years ago the academy was less concerned with gender issues and the treatment of ideas from cultures other than our own, for example.

Q: The demands and the expectations placed on the so-called “core courses” have grown, while the courses themselves and the time students devote to them have decreased. Has the core program been stretched too thin?

A: Well, I think that today there are too many agendas and interests. In globalization, for example, everyone wants her field represented. On the other hand, when I supervised Colgate's core revision back in the 1980s, we all wanted our classic texts -- Freud, Darwin, Hemingway, the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible, the Odyssey -- and on and on -- represented. The membrane's always stretched thin content-wise.

Q: Throughout the book you bring up the issue that most graduate programs don’t include teacher training, and also that there’s often a negative attitude toward teaching duties in the sciences, where many of the best minds are conducting research, not teaching. Should there be more emphasis on training future professors to teach, and on increasing the prestige of teaching?  

A: I wish more grad schools would spend time teaching incipient Ph.D.s how to teach. I was thrown into it unprepared at the outset but was fortunate to have mentors who cared about that. This neglect is less likely to happen at a small liberal arts institution that focuses on undergrad education. The sciences, particularly at the larger institutions, are less inclined to reward good teaching and to place faculty rather than grad students in front of the undergrad. Among the highest monetary awards for research are the six- to seven-figure Nobel Prizes. In the area of teaching the three-figure CASE [Council for Advancement and Support of Education] award, which I received, pales. In a culture where you put your money where your mouth is that shows how much we value research compared to teaching.

Q: You devote several pages to giving tips on teaching based on your good and bad experiences. What’s the most important advice you’d want an introductory college professor to take away from that chapter?

A: Remember that every young mind you confront in that room is different and that ways of turning on a particular one of them may require an unorthodox approach. Try getting to know who your students are. Begin with their names. That really matters to them.

Q: You write about students who see college only as a place where they need to get good grades so they can get a good job. How can they escape from that narrow view in today’s environment, where most university-related debate centers on the rising cost of college, student loans and whether college is worth it?

A: That's the biggest problem and it's a major reason why I wrote Class Not Dismissed. The problem was there even 50-plus years ago when I started out, but clearly it looms larger in 2014, thanks to economic woes and our country's continued definition of success: enrichment via material wealth. I think college should be only for those who can be brought to seek enrichment of the soul. We try to pave alternate routes to contentment by studying the thought/lifeway of a wide variety of people and places. So, we're talking big change in our value structure.



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