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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

Provoking Thinkers

Interview by Raymond Hardie
Photography by Jim Coit

 
     

 

Professor Wm. Arctander O’Brien is the recipient of this year’s UCSD Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He previously received four Outstanding Teacher of the Year awards from Revelle and Eleanor Roosevelt Colleges. He came to UCSD in 1986 after teaching for five years at the University of Virginia, and has earned a reputation as a teacher who can inspire science majors to study and enjoy the humanities. He is currently working on a book on the last writings of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Magazine: How long have you been teaching required humanities intro courses?

Professor Wm. Arctander O’Brien: I started teaching in the Revelle sequence in 1988 and in the Eleanor Roosevelt sequence in 2000.

M: How do these big general introductory courses fit into a modern science education?

O’Brien: These courses are really important to have when you first come to a university, because they show you what’s available at a college level—philosophy, history, literature etc. It’s great to explore, at least for your first two years.

M: You seem to make an impact on your students, even though the number of students is large. Do you find the size of the classes a challenge?

O’Brien: The classes run about 200 students, but they’re exciting to teach. They are required courses, and you can tell a lot of the students come in there almost against their will. At times, I can hear the chains clanking around their legs. The challenge is to get their attention and hold it, and eventually to make them enjoy the material and even want more of it. And that’s doable, because they are really smart kids and if you can turn them on to the pleasures of reading, they’ll get hungry for more.

M: Do you find any difference between humanities, science and engineering students?

O’Brien: I see the students who are in science flame on to the humanities. I see them get excited. I see them start to think in a different way. In the humanities, thinking and interpreting and critical thinking are just extensions of a kind of thinking that we do in everyday life. And the students like it, once you show them that humanities courses are not some kind of high culture, but that it’s very much commonsense and real and practical and enjoyable and fun. It has a lot to do with human questions, questions of values and concepts—questions that are societal, psychological. These aren’t questions that necessarily fall into the realm of science as we traditionally think about hard science.

M: What is your aim in a larger, required humanities course?

O’Brien: To present the best interpretations I can of the books and issues that we’re covering. I try to show how I’m operating, what kind of moves I’m making, so that the students are aware I’m presenting a certain interpretation. I’m not trying to be neutral or present myself as neutral. I think neutrality is a myth, just like presenting the ‘truth’ would be a myth. In a large humanities class, I try to work on one idea or one problem in each class. That means that over the course of a quarter, I will have given them 30 big ideas or 30 big problems to mull over. My point isn’t to give them what one of my old professors called a “cultural suntan.” It’s to get them to do critical thinking.

M: You’ve taught on the east and west coasts. What are the differences in outlooks and teaching philosophies?

O’Brien: The biggest difference I found was that the students on the East Coast were used to being taught in small groups, in seminars. The students here are just not used to seminars. And they’re not used to contact with their professors. I often ask my students if they have ever been to their professors’ office hours, and they’ll say no. And it makes me want to weep. I used to spend at least two hours a week with my professors during office hours getting one-on-one attention. For whatever reason, I think the students at UCSD don’t feel welcomed by their professors, whether that’s a perceived or real thing. I think that’s a function of the size of the campus and the culture. But public universities are very concerned with having a high student-to-faculty ratio. There’s a bottom line on that. And we’re expected to keep that high. And in the humanities, that just doesn’t work.

M: When you are teaching a class, do you want them to think about an idea, and then select a suitable text? Or vice versa?

O’Brien: Depends on the course. Revelle Humanities is a traditional “great books” course. So when I set up the syllabus for that, I think in terms of authors. So, I’m going to have them read Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Sartre, that material. And we’ll let the ideas come out of the text. When I teach Making of the Modern World (MMW) at Eleanor Roosevelt College, it’s a little bit more historically driven and we have to cover the origins of democracy and the rise of nationalism, colonialism and imperialism.

M: How do you engage modern students in the study of difficult texts when you are in competition with MTV, text messaging and Internet simplification of ideas?

O’Brien: You turn the difficulty into pleasure. Because the students are so smart, they like a challenge. You sort of dare them to go ahead and master the text. And they’ll respond to that. UCSD students get a rush out of reading and mastering a hard text.

M: I believe you do a lot of reading aloud in class. Do you have a theatrical bent?

O’Brien: No, although one of my favorite myths that grew around me one year was that I had been a drama major as an undergraduate. I liked that a lot, I was really happy that that was a rumor. But ultimately, with a big class, it’s theater, it’s dramatic, it’s performance. And you make the drama work to keep the students’ attention from moment to moment. I always use a snap-on microphone in a big class because if you don’t have a microphone, and if you’re not a professional at throwing your voice, you’re yelling all the time. If you have a microphone, you can really use your voice and that’s part of the drama. It keeps the class alive.

M: Have you noticed a difference in intellectual diversity or receptivity of your classes over the years?

O’Brien: Kids between the ages of 18 and 22 are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Certainly, students have become more concerned with getting training for a career. They know that the middle class is becoming less and less viable in America. And either they’re going to be in the upper class or the lower class and they want to get good training so they’re in the upper class. Part of that also means they are more geared toward practical scientific study. But as far as being open and receptive, they’re pretty much the same as they always were. PAGE2

 

RELATED LINKS

William Arctander O'Brien's Web
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UCSD Department of Literature
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Alumni Awards for Excellence
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"A public that is not educated in the humanities, arts and social sciences is a narrowly educated public and a less humanely educated public."