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UC Berkeley professor finds talking with hundreds of students no laughing matter
17 Feb 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Associate 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.

The normally quite comedic Ranney concluded that he needed to take dramatic action involving not just the timing of his jokes, but time itself.

"If they knew me a little better," he thought to himself, "I might get a few more chuckles."

Maybe if he just stood in the doorway and shook every student's hand? No, he decided: too patronizing, "too Clintonesque."

Instead, 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.

A 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.

Christin Hansen, a junior majoring in cognitive science, said she is probably more likely to visit Ranney during office hours with questions.

Anna Lee, a senior majoring in sociology, agreed.

"It 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.

Students 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.

Word of Ranney's exercise spread rapidly among his colleagues.

"A lot of them are curious," he said. "Some of the reaction is disbelief and a little bit of horror."

His 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 300 students.

Ranney 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.

Ranney 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.

For 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.

"I 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."

Some 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 were up.

Joking aside, Ranney said he's no longer as concerned about laughs and hopes his students enjoyed the exercise as much as he did.

"I hope it helps motivate students," he said, "and makes them feel a part of a community."


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