Van Riper, C., "Again to Cope," The Michigan Speech Association Journal, 1966, volume 1, number 1, published by the Michigan Speech Association, p. 1-8

I have just made the horrible discovery that I have taught the same undergraduate course, Introduction to Speech Pathology, fifty-nine times and will teach it again next semester. The shudder is more of shock than revulsion. Incredibly, I contemplate this sixtieth performance, if that is what it is, with real enthusiasm. I like to teach that course! But surely this is a time for pause and self examination. Is it masochism? Should I resign my professorship and join the Peace Corps or is it already too late for this Ancient Mariner to discard his academic albatross? Must I teach Introduction to Speech Pathology throughout eternity?

Since most instructors must offer the same course several times, it is possible that the scrutiny of this, the extreme case, may provide some illumination concerning the murky influence which repetitive teaching has upon the teacher and his students. Without much hope that I can be entirely honest, let me attempt the analysis of how I try to cope.

We have all know the stereotype of the old professor whose lectures followed his yellowed notes from year to year so closely that his students knew that Academic Joke Number Nine would be emitted at precisely twenty-three minutes after eleven on the fourth day of the class. While I admit that a few of my favorite anecdotes seem unduly familiar to me if not to my students, I think I can deny that I fit that stereotype completely. For one thing I never use notes. When I first began to teach the course, long before these present students were born, I prepared every lecture with utmost care and each new semester I revised my outline and my notes. But I soon found that they began to bore me utterly. So I re-worked them into a text so I could forget them. This is not to say that I no longer prepare for each day's class session.

Very rarely have I ever come to class without having mulled at some length, and when I have not, my teaching was dull and uninspired. I have found this incubation period absolutely necessary if I am to generate that excitement in my students which is my goal. Since I know them and when they have been reading in the texts and references and I know what I have told them in earlier sessions, I begin the mulling incubation process by asking myself what I can given them that will focus illustrate or amplify the topics we are investigating together. In this, I try to avoid any repetition or review of what presumably they all have read. I'm no book reviewer. I will not be-labor their ears with what they can get through their eyes.

Instead I scan and search my past experience in research and therapy and knowledge of the literature and observation of my fellow-man for material which will open windows through which they may desire to peer. And, as I grow older, I find myself seeing constantly to relate the information to their lives and their futures. I fear I'm now expressing my own philosophy of the essential dignity of man's existence a bit too often. But these students are searching for identity and for values and I cannot deny their hunger. Sparks begin to shoot when the discussion moves in these directions.

Oddly enough I find that all the topics we discuss seem to lead eventually to the scrutiny of the self and the culture. This may be due to the fact that since speech is the unique feature of man's existence, I find in my subject, speech pathology, all the evidences of man's frailty both as an individual and as a member of society. At any rate, in my preparatory mulling before each new session I find myself anticipating what the students' questions and thoughts might be and hunting for material which might serve as tentative or provocative answers. Finally, I make some attempt, usually a feeble one, to organize some sequence to the presentation but often it seems to organize itself there in the lecture hall, the feedback from the students creating its own new pattern and often to my astonishment.

These mulling periods are so essential that I jealously guard the time they require. One of the maddening and saddening things about these last thirty years in higher education is the continuing constriction of a professor's leisure. We have so very little time to think. Always there is a demand for research and writing and especially those damned committee assignments that plague us so in this country. I protest the whole committee function! Only a misanthropic camel could have ever invented a committee.

Trying to be cooperative in my early years at the university, I found myself being appointed to one committee after another, and with each my own small cup of time was drained. Finally in sheer desperation I sought the aid of an older colleague who apparently never had a committee assignment. "I have a formula for beating the system," he said with a gin in his beard, "but do not divulge it to the Dean. I used to be on a lot of committees too, but I learned to remain absolutely quiet through all the discussion and wrangling and speeches and to wait until everyone was exhausted and bored and ready to tell the chairman to do what he had long intended anyway. Then, and only then, I would reopen the question with vehemence and many objections and challenges. Since I had not spoken before they had to hear me out.

The word soon got out that I was a lousy man to have on a committee and I've had time to think and read ever since." I applied his formula and lo! it has worked well. As a small contribution to the current administrative chaos, I now reveal his secret. The product of a committee is in inverse proportion to the square of its membership.

In Contact With Students

As a committee of one, I soon learned that the effectiveness of my teaching depended directly upon my understanding of my students' needs. When I failed to teach well, I repeatedly discovered that I had misjudged them. The clarity or vividness of my lectures played only an ancillary role. I have heard a few of my colleagues over their coffee cups declaiming that they "laid the stuff out and the students could jolly well remember it or flunk." Some other have boasted, I think guiltily, that they rarely had a conference with an individual students, never permitted questions in class, and viewed themselves as fonts of knowledge from which those who wished could fill their pitchers and to hell with the rest of them.

Another one said, "To cope with the faceless individuals that sit before me, I just assume that all of them will be fascinated by hearing me talk to myself on the topic at hand. To maintain this belief I insulate myself so far as possible from the students. I don't want to know how stupid or disinterested they really are."

These reactions are not wholly due to the frailty of the instructor sapiens. In part they arise from the evils of the mass teaching imposed upon us. Our classes are far too large to enable us to know our students. Yet I have said that this student contact and understanding are absolutely essential if I am to teach well. Perhaps my own struggle to cope with this sad necessity may be revealing. In 1936 my class consisted of six students, all of whom had possessed enough curiosity to enroll in a course with the strange name of "Speech Pathology." We explored the subject together, a modus operandi which still constitutes the basic structure of the course. But then we could talk informally with much commentary, prediction and recall as well as nonsense.

They used to refer to it as their "sharing time." Usually it was more of a septlogue than a dialogue, but the mutual identification of student and teacher was always present. We examined patients together, did therapy and research together, and then shared our thought and feelings with each other. I knew these students intimately and they knew me.

As the years have passed, this optimal teaching situation has gone forever, except in my graduate seminars. In the last ten years I have never had less than one hundred unknowns cramped and crowded in the amphitheatre before me. I now make no effort to know all their names; I remember the professor of ichthyology who said that every time he memorized a student's name he forgot a fish. Nevertheless, I have an illusion, and believe my students share it, that I have a fairly clear appreciation of their thinking, attitudes and needs. Over the years I have developed a technique of sampling which at least sustains that illusion.

Early in the course I give the students a set of assigned readings and projects on which they are to report by writing not an abstract of the content or experience but an account of the personal reactions, thoughts and feelings which these generate. I read these papers myself -- a tremendous task usually requiring fifteen hours -- write a few personal comments on each and then invite selected individuals alone or in groups to visit me either at the office or at my farmhouse on a Sunday evening. I resist selecting only the brightest or most interesting one but seek a representative sample.

In our conferences the talk roams widely since I use my professional skills to make sure that they do most of the talking. I may do this two times in a semester, more often if I feel I am out of contact with them during my lectures. But the impression that I care to know my students seems to travel swiftly and other students who urgently need me manage to overcome the barrier reef of my secretary, a wise, perceptive woman, who knows how to screen out the applepolishers.

The ictus in Action

In the class sessions I encourage any interruption of my lectures to ask a question or to make a comment. I do this by invitation but also by suddenly stopping my presentations and roaming up the aisles to hold a brief spontaneous dialogue with some class member. Or I may turn out the lights and ask them in the darkness to think a bit about what I have been saying and to tell me when the lights come on again. Like professors, students have so little time to really think. Or I may select a panel to come to the platform to discuss my discussion. Or I may send a young man and an attractive girl out into the hall to explore "How differently you would teach your future parrot or baby to talk," and then to share with the class their thinking. Or I might select one student at random by using my ictus, the forefinger, which I aim blindly over my back, and devote the session just to teaching him alone as the others eavesdrop.

Occasionally I will have an "Instruct the Instructor" assignment in which the students write an unassigned paper which will teach me something that I don't know but I should. I collect the papers, then use my ictus. Surprisingly, most of them take this very seriously and I have learned much from them, though there are always the few who insist upon educating me concerning the positions of Arabian intercourse, or some such vital matter.

I should say here that only rarely has a student ever exploited the permissive relationship in the class itself by wise-cracking or inappropriate discourse and when it has occurred I have always found that the person has been badly hurt by some teacher in the past. Students seem to sense my respect for them and their potential growth and they appreciate it.

The Course Has Changed

In regarding the above, I hope I have not conveyed the impression that I always operate in this manner. Different classes require different approaches even though I teach the same course. There are days when I lecture throughout the hour but I am always conscious that in the mass of heads before me there are important individual human beings. I find myself scanning constantly. I talk first to one student then another, not to the amorphous horde. I try to get through the masks some of them wear. When a girl yawns, I know she was probably up late helling around, but I cannot help but redouble my efforts to interest her. Sometimes I feel like a sheep herder. There are certain students whose faces can be used as sensors but I try not to address them only. The read joy of teaching comes when you can see the lighting of intellectual excitement emerge from what looks like a clod. I've found that there are no clods, only unresponsive human beings.

But the upshot of all of this interaction is that I have come to realize that each new class presents a different challenge because it is composed of different individuals. The mix varies widely from semester to semester. As in wines, there are also vintage years for students. Some of the best years came when the veterans returned from World War II or Korea but there have also been good ones before and since. Perhaps my sampling is faulty or my skull computer poorly programmed, but I have never been able to envisage the average student. I cannot teach the same course twice in the same way because I just don't have the same students.

A similar necessity for variation stems from the nature of the course itself. When I began to teach, speech pathology was an infant field with a tiny literature and less research. In these thirty years, it has grown tremendously and now the input overload of information is almost overwhelming to one who must interpret it. Yet this very flood creates the need to design a new course each semester.

For years I have recorded a lecture or two for my own private benefit or trauma so I could have some objective evidence of what the devil I was doing. I kept those recordings and a week ago I listened again to some of the earlier ones -- scratched into aluminum discs for we had neither wire or tape then -- and I was amazed and a bit sickened to hear the many bits of misinformation I had inflicted on the unsuspecting.

Another change in the nature of the course has come with the increasing number of students. Except for their texts, they do not, cannot read the same things at the same time in the literature because of limited library offerings of the same reference. When I first began teaching I could assume a common background that all possessed, but now I am frequently forced to abstract and summarize the basic information for students instead of sending them to the original sources. This is always a real loss since distortion always creeps in. Students still read much but they read different things and I'm sure many of them miss much significant source material.

We are thus forced to rely too much on the standard texts, a few of which I have written. With respect to the latter, let me say that I feel every instructor should use a text he himself has written. I have used the texts of my colleagues and never teach as well when I do so, mainly because I find myself arguing with their authors too much or restating their material. My own texts I know to the point of nausea so I do not duplicate their contents in class and also I find their author surprisingly reasonable. Writing a text frees one from depending upon it.

The Teacher Has Changed

I am also able to keep out of ruts because I routinely use the presentation of actual class who tell their talks of communicative frustration. By working with them before the students, I always meet new problems which demand new commentary and explanation. It is impossible to teach the course in the same way when these living illustrations vary so much. We also use films and tapes and other audiovisual material but I get jaded easily after I've seen or heard them a time or two even when they are very good.

Finally, of course, I have changed. This change is the most difficult to assess since I cannot remember that callow youth who presided over the course so long ago. I have aged but have I grown wiser? I fear that illusion. At any rate I certainly now have more experience and knowledge to share. Throughout the years I have constantly been a working speech therapist, doing diagnosis and therapy with the people who comprise the subject matter of my course: the stutterers, the lispers, lallers, voice cases, aphasic victims of brain injury, the deaf and hard of hearing. I have been an intimate part of many lives and I must have learned something from so many troubled souls.

And so I return to the hard fact that soon I shall teach Introduction to Speech Pathology for the sixtieth time. Has all this been but the pumping of a tired balloon? Perhaps so, but I know that next fall semester when I walk into that amphitheatre, I shall hear the sound of trumpets.

Charles Van Riper (Ph.D., Iowa, 1936) is Professor of Speech Pathology and Audiology at Western Michigan University. An internationally known teacher-scholar, Dr. Van Riper will become Western Michigan University's second Distinguished University Professor in the fall of 1966.
added June 25, 2005