Did You Hear the One About...?
By Samuel H. Preston
College of Arts and Sciences student told me recently that
she never took a single note in a class taught by Jeremy
McInerney, a prize-winning teacher in our classical studies
department. The reason, she explained, was that all of his
teaching was in the form of stories that were easy to remember.
Her remark helped to confirm an impression I’ve developed
as dean that good teaching often includes a liberal dose
of stories: chronological accounts of linked events, often
with vivid characters and revealing scenarios. The Bible
gains more of its instructional purchase from its powerful
stories than from its lovely psalms. Our best communicators
among recent presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton,
were also the best storytellers. It is not far-fetched to
argue that humans are wired to be unusually receptive to
stories, perhaps because they mimic the serial way in which
we experience the world. From the unfolding chronologies,
we drew the lessons that were essential to human survival.
The discipline of history would seem to have a special pedagogic
advantage because a major mission of the historian is to
tell stories that are “true”—as true, that
is, as distance and perspective will allow. This orientation
may be partially responsible for the fact that our history
department enjoys one of the highest departmental teacher
ratings in the School. Rick Beeman, an historian of colonial
America, embellishes his classroom stories by dressing as
one of the featured characters therein. In the sciences,
cosmology and evolutionary biology are the disciplines whose
subject matter contains enough sweeping chronology to allow
fascinating stories to be crafted. Again, these areas appear
to spawn unusually popular teaching.
Stories are not the primary way that a chemist or neuroscientist
investigates or talks about the world. These specialists,
and many others, have developed complex analytic frames that
are used to study a particular set of relationships. True,
these relationships unfold in time, but often in microseconds
rather than at the more stately pace of conscious human experience.
Teachers of economics, another discipline long on analytic
frame and short on chronology, developed a sensible seminar
convention a decade or so ago in which speakers are asked
to “tell the story” of their contribution before
launching into higher math.
Aesop’s fables and Jesus’ parables still teach
even though their stories were first told thousands of years ago. Whether or
not our disciplines are conducive to storytelling, it makes sense for all of
us who teach to be aware of the mind’s apparent receptivity to stories.
They can lighten the spirit while teaching a lesson. And compelling tales like
Jeremy McInerney’s teach lessons that last for a lifetime, which after
all, is the point of an arts and sciences education.
Dean to Step Down
Samuel H. Preston, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences
since 1998, has announced that he will step down when his
seven-year term concludes in December. “As all who
know him will agree,” said Penn President Judith Rodin,
CW’66, “Sam has an unusual blend of pragmatism
and vision, and he has brought both of those qualities into
play in his quest to provide the best environment possible
for both students and faculty.” Under his leadership,
the School has pursued a strategic plan focused on faculty
development, undergraduate education, and investment in core
academic programs. “I look forward with pleasure to
serving a final year as dean,” he said, “and
returning to scholarship and teaching in the sociology department
and the Population Studies Center.”