Lectures that sing, ring and sting in the morning

May 20, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

H. George Hahn does something few professors would dare: He teaches two courses that meet early on Friday mornings.

An early riser who often gets to his office at Towson University at 5:30 a.m., Hahn always requests the 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. time slots for his classes. Many professors would consider this masochistic, an invitation to find yourself facing an empty room.

But somewhere in the unwritten laws of collegiate life, a loophole has been carved out for Hahn, a 37-year veteran of Towson's English department.

"He was worth getting up at 8 a.m. for - even on a Friday morning after we'd had a good time Thursday night," said Quincey Johnson, a Baltimore lawyer who graduated from Towson in 1983.

While their friends are sleeping off pitchers of beer, Hahn's students are at attention as he paces at the front of the room in his trademark suit and tie, transporting them to James Boswell's London and regaling them with Jonathan Swift's satire.

The students scribble away, trying to keep up with Hahn's legendary ad-libbed lectures, 50-minute set pieces peppered with allusions and anecdotes and punctuated with pithy declarations on English literature.

From this spring's 18th-century literature course, on the distinctive bite of Swift and Alexander Pope: "A satirist is like the prosecuting attorney. He's saying, `I accuse.' Whereas comedy is the writer sitting in the court gallery and shaking his head at the folly of human nature."

On Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Hahn's favorite novel: "Justice and morality are built into his comedy, and by knitting them together, he takes a long step forward. We like to see hypocrisy exposed, and laugh when it is."

As Towson struggles to right itself after the ouster of its president, Mark L. Perkins, over excessive spending on its presidential residence, it can take heart in George Hahn. For in Hahn, say colleagues and students, Towson has a symbol of excellence far more lasting than any million-dollar mansion.

If the former teachers college really wants to raise its profile, they say, it should celebrate faculty members like Hahn - teachers who give Towson its reputation for committed undergraduate instruction by emphasizing their classroom duties above all else.

"He would never allow the fact that many of his students fell short of his expectations to mean that he'd teach down to the next student," said Sherman Clark, a University of Michigan law professor and 1989 Towson graduate.

Imprint on students

At a time when colleges spend thousands on marketing, Hahn has given Towson tangible proof of its worth: dozens of graduates around the country who share the imprint of studying with H. George Hahn.

For some, Hahn's influence manifests itself in their deciding to reread Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy 20 years after studying it in his class. For others, it shows itself in their decision to become English teachers themselves.

"For me, it all starts with Dr. Hahn, and I think that's the case with all English literature majors at Towson," said Todd Ramsey, a 1990 graduate who recently received a doctorate in English from the University of Alabama.

"I don't want to give him too much credit - he's just a man - but I wonder if I didn't take his class, would my path in life have been the same?"

Philosophical clash

As effective as Hahn's classroom approach has been, there were times this year when it seemed that it might be at risk.

Perkins arrived on campus last summer trumpeting a new mission for Towson - that it tailor its teaching to the needs of the "individual learner."

Professors, he argued, need to "provide students with maps of themselves as thinkers" and lead "learning groups" that focus on "how each student efficiently learns in deep and lasting ways."

Perkins was effectively challenging what Hahn has been doing for more than 30 years: imparting his knowledge of English literature to students. No "learning groups," no "maps of themselves."

At times, Hahn will challenge students with questions, but he mostly hews to the lecture format, even though most of his classes are seminar-size.

"It's my 18th-century love of design and neatness - the lecture has a beginning, middle and end," he says. "It has a spinal column running through it, where you can keep coming back and hitting the motif."

Hahn expressed private misgivings about Perkins' push for individualized instruction. The fact is, Hahn says, Towson has always educated students by exposing them to different kinds of teaching, not by customizing everything to their needs, which he calls "patently impractical."

"How do you teach to every student? You can't," he says. "The hidden curriculum in any university is the student learning to adapt to different subjects and teaching styles."

Standards, knowledge

Hahn's students agree. His classes, they say, prove that at a time when campuses are full of multimedia gadgetry and pedagogical fads, there is still room for the lecture, aided only by chalk and blackboard.

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