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Teach Until It Hurts

Teach Until It Hurts

A Student's Perspective

Last year, I had a professor who bought a cell phone during the semester and had trouble pulling up calls after they had been missed. Old fashioned and quite charming, he had finally purchased one out of pure necessity. Chris Cline, on the other hand, is charging his iPhone between his two Mac computers as I peek my head into his office.

I ask how his summer is going, and we chitchat about what we need to do in order to prepare for school to start. I need to finish my book, and he has to write a speech for convocation. I need to mentally prepare for my summer to end, and he has to create a few syllabi and polish what he’s going to teach.

Chris first started teaching in graduate school, where he was required to teach some smaller classes for a professor. He enjoyed teaching so much that after he finished he continued tutoring students, even as he was being phased into the research emphasis of the program. After graduating from Penn State, he was ready for a change of scenery, preferably something more intimate. So he peppered smaller schools in the Intermountain West and the Pacific Northwest with resumes and CVs, but never got what he wanted: a good position in a smaller liberal arts school.

Chris’ sister lived in Salt Lake City and had friends who needed some programming and database management help in their environmental consulting company so, being a westerner at heart, he moved here to work temporarily while looking for an academic position. He happened across Westminster while riding his bicycle to work, thought it was a neat little place, dropped off a CV, and offered to do some tutoring. A week or two before school started, he was offered an adjunct position. The students did the rest: as the semester came to a close, some of his students wrote to the school and asked that Westminster rehire him. He was offered a part-time position, then a full-time position not long after. Everyone agreed he was a perfect fit for Westminster.

“I’m not one to toot my own horn, but they loved me,” he clarifies.

It’s not hard to imagine, especially as Chris describes what can happen on a normal day in his class. In order to demonstrate Newton’s First Law, Chris normally puts on his rollerblades and shows the class that he can’t get moving by himself. The students realize that he needs an outside force to get going, give him a push, and watch as nothing can stop him, except for a door at the end of
the hall.

One year, his class was larger and he needed more space, so they went to the sidewalk outside. “Usually the students give me a gingerly push, but this time one student started running with me”; worried that the railing would not only stop him, but disembowel him, Chris knew he couldn’t crash into it as he did with the interior wooden door. A hockey player, and thus very comfortable on rollerblades, he decided to grab the rail and change his direction. “I had it in my head that I needed to get the theory across,” he continues. Although he knew his arm was broken, he finished the class and taught the one directly after it before heading to the doctor’s office to get a cast for his arm.

This kind of dedication to teaching has helped Chris affect students in ways that have lasted long after they finished that last final. I ask if students have ever taken an extra-special lesson with them after class or over a weekend. I imagine a student getting a little carried away after finishing a problem, and I’m not prepared for Chris’ answer. One recent weekend, he went to a wedding of a former student and got to catch up with a few of his old students. The bride mentioned that, as a result of taking Chris’ class, she still can’t take a shower without thinking of evaporation and condensation.

Chris explained that the reason a person feels cold after climbing out of the shower is because she is no longer surrounded by water. The water evaporates into the air around her and pulls thermal energy with it. The room isn’t cooler than the shower; it’s just less wet. This principle stayed with Chris’ student years after taking his class and on her wedding day, no less.

For Chris Cline, scientific explanations for the everyday enrich his experiences. Instead of wishing he could tuck his knowledge away, he remarks that it adds to his appreciation of swimming, music, rainbows, and sunsets. He compares his passion for science to other deep knowledge fans gather about teams, bands, and artists: the heartbreaking story behind a hit song or the history of a symphony’s first performance can help connect the audience to the piece more deeply than if they knew nothing about it.

Chris’ ability to bring sports and music into discussions about science reflects his teaching methods almost too perfectly. By interesting students and making them engage with the material, they learn better. Also, by using examples that students are already familiar with, Chris feels they are more likely to add knowledge layer by layer—which is very important for students—rather than forget concepts and situations because they can’t relate to them.

Chris also did his research when it comes to classroom management. He splits his classes into small groups and tries to spend minimal time in front of the class (about 10 minutes at the beginning and some 5-minute interruptions). He even offers entertainment in the form of uncertainty regarding his personal well-being (he has electrocuted himself in class, and don’t forget the rollerblading incident).

After all the hard work making his classes unorthodox, Chris rewards his students with multiple-choice tests. They wish! Multiple-choice tests encourage memorization and pattern recognition, which is not what Chris wants his students to get out of class. Instead, students get a take-home test and, therefore, more time to work on the problems. That way, students can explore richer problems and take more away from the test.

Before I leave Chris’ office, he reminds me he has a date with the pool. He also mentions that he has to practice dolphin kicks underwater ceaselessly, because people swim faster underwater than halfway above the surface. I just hope he doesn’t drown trying to prove it.

Whitney Strong, a senior honors student at Westminster, is on the dean's list and the lacrosse team. After graduation in May 2009, she plans to pursue an MFA in creative writing.