pleasureteam note: We are considering teachers who know how to make learning a pleasure. Last week we featured a link to Dr. Francis Su. Greg Bridgeman’s (“We All Bleed Blue”) band teacher had a profound influence on him. Dr. Joseph Deck helped me to recognize the beauty of chemistry (“Dance of the Snowflakes“). We learned by watching Dr. Roger Cleveland. Today, regular contributor Brian Coatney remembers Dr. Michael Schnell. We hope you will share your recollections of extraordinary teachers.
In my English MA program at Austin Peay State University, in Clarksville, Tennessee, I took a course in research methods from Dr. Michael Schnell. As our class of 8-10 students sat around the table with him, his Socratic questions and in the moment wisdom always created interesting conversations. Three things he said have stayed with me all through the past thirteen years.
Dr. Schnell believed in second chances up to a point. He gave us rigorous feedback on our papers before our final submission. When someone asked him, “Won’t too many people make an A in the course?” he replied, “I’m here to teach students, not grade them.”
Just because we got to revise our work didn’t mean that Dr. Schnell wanted to see sloppy or irresponsible work on our first try. He scorched me one time for quoting a long literary passage from a Jane Austen novel in one of our shorter papers. I thought the quotation was to die for; Dr. Schnell wanted to hear my thoughts instead. I have remembered his view of grading many times when tempted to overly mechanized views of grading that don’t really leave students with a sense of perseverance and discovery.
His second great saying came from one of his assignment prompts that meant I would not necessarily immediately find the material needed to complete the assignment. With a murmuring tone hard to disguise, I mentioned to Dr. Schnell that it might be difficult to locate the items he had requested in the assignment. With clear, level eyes—not angry but firm—he said, “A scholar always finds what he needs.” That silenced me. His words have helped me many times when I have felt frustrated over apparent dead ends in trying to accomplish a task.Last, we had a conversation about antiquity one day. Dr. Schnell surprised me by saying, “No artifact from antiquity can exist separate from the culture in which it was produced.” I argued this point with him and never was convinced until a later course I took that was about Shakespeare on film. Watching different versions of a play spanning decades and seeing how the culture of a decade seeps into and even soaks even a performance that stays with the text led me to humbly acknowledge the truth of what Dr. Schnell had said.
When I had argued with Dr. Schnell, my case was built around universal truth – that there ought to be an artifact that is universal and not influenced by its culture. Fancy that. You see, I was afraid that his assertion implied a relativistic world view that opposes the idea of universal truth, when in fact Dr. Schnell, I saw in retrospect, meant nothing of the kind.
Dr. Schnell was a great teacher. He was not one to lecture, but he sure could get a point across so that it became relevant.