In Defense of Darryl Caterine

by Ana Bonnheim | 5/16/02 5:00am

Katie Bell's May 10 article "Profs. allow students to set their own grades," presents professor Darryl Caterine's pedagogical methods in an inaccurate light.

Ms. Bell suggests that Caterine is an unusual professor, because in his dissatisfaction with Dartmouth's grading system, he allows students to evaluate themselves. As a student who spent last fall on a Foreign Study Program led by Caterine, I would agree that Caterine is unique among professors, though not for the reasons Ms. Bell noted in her "expos." He is a rare teacher because he believes that teaching goes beyond disseminating information.

For Caterine, teaching does not end when he puts his notes down at the end of a lecture. Teaching is not about siphoning historical frameworks from the front of the classroom to students seated in rows of desks. Rather, teaching is about helping to place information in a student's personal context.

I have learned to ask questions from Caterine. How do the theorists I'm reading challenge my views of the world? How must I revamp my basic assumptions in light of new information? How can I respect -- really acknowledge and admire -- other cultures without forsaking my own? How can I take a stand? Why should I care about what I am learning?

Each one of the questions that I have used as an example here is a personal question. Each one of the questions that I have used as an example is a question that I cared enough about outside of my academic life to discuss with my roommates over pints of Ben and Jerry's. Each one is a question that, until I took a class with Caterine, no professor forced me to address.

Caterine showed me, in long hours of conversation, that I do not and should not need to separate the personal from the intellectual in my academic life. The ability to merge thoughts inside and outside of the classroom should be a basic skill. I have been shocked, however, at the difficulty that Dartmouth students, including myself, have had with the fundamental task of internalizing academic information. With Caterine's encouragement, I find that I am more confident in exploring my personal questions regarding academic issues with my professors.

Is there a reason to learn information if it is never internalized? Why do we take classes, if not to better our thinking skills and to gain new tools with which to evaluate and critique our world? As such, Caterine's quest to unite the material taught in his courses with his students' personal experiences is remarkable and beneficial. The fact that he continually creates a forum for thought, discussion and growth means that he is fulfilling the mission of a liberal arts college to sponsor intellectual dialogue that can further critical thought among students and faculty.

Often, it is all too easy to become detached from the personal when studying religion. When learning about beliefs and rituals in which students have had no contact, it can be difficult to think in a way that treats the religious practitioners as fully human. Caterine is cognizant of this danger and is careful to remind his students that their attitudes in investigating religion can be as important as the facts that they learn. In giving his students a framework of respect, Caterine gives more to students than 10 weeks worth of doled-out information.

If more professors adopted Caterine's approach, programs like Faculty and Students Together and Take a Professor to Lunch would not need to exist. They would become obsolete, because students and professors would be voluntarily and naturally engaging with one another.

In her article, Ms. Bell did nail one nail on the head: Caterine is a revolutionary professor, though not only for the format of his grading system. Caterine is a teacher in the truest sense of the word, because he genuinely believes in the ideal of a reciprocal professor-student relationship that will lend insight to both parties engaged with one another. Instead of waiting for students to approach him in his office hours, he initiates dialogue in his lectures and in the format of his discussion-based classes. The irony here is simple. How unfortunate that such basic gestures of interest in students, grappling with coming of age in an imperfect world, are not the status quo but rather are frowned upon when discovered.