Up Front

For the Love of Teaching

Emeritus professor of political science J.D. Williams calls it the curse of the retired professor: though it's been five years since he officially "left" campus, he can't quit coming back.

He can't quit telling the dramatic story of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, and can't quit trying to generate a love for it. Williams gives his oration on the genesis of the supreme law of the nation as often as the opportunity is presented. Since 1986, when he was named University Reynolds Lecturer, he's given his rousing "Miracle at Philadelphia" presentation more than 30 times,most recently in an energetic address before students of American government, history, current events, and Contemporary World Problems at the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Tim Chambless MS'77 PhD'87 makes certain his students attend. To understand prevailing issues in American government, he notes, one must understand the history of its foundation. And he realizes few teachers communicate that as passionately as Williams.

Chambless teaches international students at the English Language Institute and is an associate instructor in political science and history. His own passion for the craft of teaching began while serving as a teaching assistant for Williams. (This transpired shortly after he heard the premier invocation of "The Miracle at Philadelphia.")

Williams' exuberant talk on events leading to the framing of the Constitution is enlivened with slides of historical paintings. He uses these as a point of departure to describe the charisma of members of the first Constitutional Congress, quoting news accounts and diaries. And because he has searched, discovered, and reconstructed their histories, it is as if Williams personally knew each of the figures in those paintings. After a dramatic recitation of the events leading to the signing of the Constitution, he unrolls a parchment-paper facsimile and utters his compelling summation: "That they produced a Constitution, against historic odds; that they invented federalism in a confederate society; that they used power to check abuses in power, and wrote a true Constitution designed for ages to come,that, frankly, was miraculous to me."

This same atmosphere of intellectual excitement affects faculty and students campuswide. There was a flood of talent and scholarly distinction this spring. Elaine Pagels, an authority on early Christianity and author of The Gnostic Gospels was a visiting lecturer from Princeton University. Nobel laureate Kenneth Wilson, a physicist who has spent six years in a major math and science education reform program in Ohio, participated in colloquia on the future of research universities.

Wilson immersed faculty and administration in deliberation over how universities can improve the teaching of undergraduates and better prepare students for the workforce. His proposals include prominent faculty members periodically switching fields, involving students in the "work life" of universities including participating in teaching; and phasing out lecture-format courses. He maintains learning is improved by an engaging process of inquiry in which faculty come down from the podium and have contact with students in more informal ways. This, he said, will aid students in developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The goals Wilson proposed were not unlike those of the University's Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment, which stressed cooperative programs in a symposium this past April. Focusing on revitalizing Western ecosystems damaged by previous human activities, conference organizers from the College of Law arranged field trips to sites where remarkable efforts toward restoration and mitigation are taking place. These included visits to areas around tailings and smelters, along the Jordan River, and in Tooele's Rush Valley,part of the true character of the West and its peculiar geography that Wallace Stegner's literature conveyed. Experts in hydrology, wetlands and wildlife management, ranching, mining, and landowners showed how damaged sites are being reclaimed. It was a rare opportunity for collaboration and learning among people from government agencies, public interest groups, industry consultants, Native American tribes, and academia. Such examination of issues is critical to Utah, critical to the University, and to its future.

The founders of the U.S. Constitution wrote narrative history. Many of the University's faculty continue in that eminent tradition. But others are exploring new paths and new material, using innovative methods to expand the parameters of their disciplines and to reinforce the worthiness of their craft. Whatever the sources and materials, the practice of learning binds together the University faculty and students. With its vitality, no wonder J.D. Williams can't keep coming back to campus to quench his thirst for more.