Here are two examples of teaching styles, as described in the first chapter of No Ivory Tower. Fictional? Yes, but Gregory Van Buren and Francis Plummer didn’t appear to me out of nowhere. They are assembled from the many parts of some extraordinarily talented and passionate teachers I’ve had the privilege to know. I want you to know them too. So here they are, introduced in the early pages of the novel.

“It was a wonder that two so different models for students of how to be in the world could be contained in so small an institution as Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Gregory Van Buren was tall, always impeccably dressed, and formal, a believer in authority. Francis Plummer was short, slightly pudgy, and indifferently attired. Gregory was a devout Catholic and Francis a Pagan, having been converted from his father’s Episcopal faith by an equal measure of affinity to the way he thought Native Americans viewed the world, and a strong dose of rebelliousness. Gregory kept a discernible distance from his students—and, some would say, from the literature he presented to them.  He thought of it as the world’s possession, not his, and he showed it to them analytically, letting them decide for themselves if they would fall in love with it, as he had so long ago he couldn’t remember.  At graduation time, more girls asked Francis to confer their diplomas on them than all the other teachers combined, but only one or two girls would ask Gregory. The poems he chose to honor them were never easy to understand, and when he hugged them, which he did only because graduation hugs were a sacred tradition at Miss Oliver’s School for Girls, he was so shy of contact, he’d stick his butt out so far behind himself that people laughed and said he looked like he was wearing a bustle.

Everything that happened in Gregory’s classes was an exercise in critical thinking, and everything in Francis’ an exercise in engagement. He was passionate and demonstrative, and he wasn’t about to let the students decide whether they would fall in love with literature. The alumni loved him for this.

Francis Plummer was the face of the school. In the classroom as powerful and larger than life as Superman; outside the classroom, quiet, small and unobtrusive. Many years ago, the students took to calling him Clark Kent, generating a mystique that’d been building for decades. That this very un-athletic man spent weekends running dangerous rapids in the springtime when the water was high only added to the legend.

Thus Francis Plummer was vastly more powerful than Gregory Van Buren in the school’s fraught politics that Head of School Rachel Bickham would have to manage.”

Now please imagine that the new school year is about to start. You are a junior, with one more required course to take, Shakespearean Tragedy: Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear. Francis Plummer teaches one section, Gregory Van Buren another and a third teacher another. The curriculum is the same in all three sections. Francis and Gregory and the third teacher have designed the course together and agreed upon the desired outcomes. To which one do you hope you have been assigned: Francis’? Gregory’s? Or the third teacher’s?  If the third, would you describe her or him?

I would very much appreciate reading your answers in the comment section below.


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