Berkeley professor finds talking with hundreds of students no
Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Professor Michael Ranney's jokes were falling a bit flat, his
humor sometimes failing among the 200 students in his University
of California, Berkeley, lecture course.
normally quite comedic Ranney concluded that he needed to take
dramatic action involving not just the timing of his jokes,
but time itself.
they knew me a little better," he thought to himself, "I
might get a few more chuckles."
if he just stood in the doorway and shook every student's hand?
No, he decided: too patronizing, "too Clintonesque."
Ranney recently surprised his cognitive science class by announcing
that each student must meet personally with him for five minutes
in his office at the Graduate School of Education.
few days after the experiment, which took him 17 hours to complete
and nearly cost him his voice, Ranney may not have students
guffawing, but he has their attention.
Hansen, a junior majoring in cognitive science, said she is
probably more likely to visit Ranney during office hours with
Lee, a senior majoring in sociology, agreed.
was really a hoot," Ranney said of the exercise that he's
likely to repeat when teaching the course next spring. But,
it is impossible, he said, for many professors to balance such
an exercise with the demands of research and teaching.
also seem to understand that it isn't feasible for most professors
to meet individually with students. Hansen said Ranney's class
is her smallest; her others average 600 students. Lee said most
of her classes number between 100 and 200 students.
of Ranney's exercise spread rapidly among his colleagues.
lot of them are curious," he said. "Some of the reaction
is disbelief and a little bit of horror."
course has the largest enrollment of any class this semester
in the education school. Typically, a course on race and ethnicity
inside schools that is offered only in the fall draws more than
said he has chaffed under criticism that professors are remote
and out of touch with their students, and recalled the gulf
he felt between himself and some faculty members during his
own undergraduate days at the University of Colorado.
said he hopes students will be more likely in the future to
raise their hands and ask questions in his class, or visit him
during office hours. He also is experimenting with his lecture
style, using technology a bit differently, modulating readings
and using quizzes to encourage lecture attendance.
the one-on-one exercise, he asked students to prepare questions
for him, including a "Stump Michael" challenge. Although
most students initially professed to have no questions for Ranney,
he said they paused only briefly before asking about everything
from his age to artificial intelligence, to his favorite band
or painting, to how he feels about free will.
want to teach little kids, so I asked about nature and nurture,"
said Lee, the sociology major, "whether we all have the
same capacity to learn."
shared personal experiences with cognitive trauma and a few
sessions took on overtones of condensed therapy sessions. Ranney
quipped that he found himself wanting to say their 50 minutes
aside, Ranney said he's no longer as concerned about laughs
and hopes his students enjoyed the exercise as much as he did.
hope it helps motivate students," he said, "and makes
them feel a part of a community."