Lisa Scottoline’s “English Class with Mr. Roth” (May 3, 2014 NYT) recalls the author’s experience as an undergraduate student attending two of Philip Roth’s literature courses at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Scottoline concludes her essay with this description of the aftereffects Roth’s teaching:
Looking back, I’ve come to understand that he was the best professor I ever had, not only because of his genius, but also because of his distance. We were a group of girls eager to please, to guess at what he wanted us to say, and to say that for him. We all wanted to hear about him, or have him tell us how to write, but that was something he steadfastly denied us. By withholding his own personality, thoughts and opinions, he forced us back on our own personalities, thoughts and opinions. He made us discover what we wanted to write about, and to write about it the way we wanted to.
One point emerging in Scottoline’s essay was that as a young woman in the 1970s she didn’t think about who she wanted to be, but about who she wanted to marry. Roth’s somewhat distant pedagogy forced her back onto herself, her own ideas, and her own opinions, a process that led her toward respect for herself and her own mind.
What follows is the course observation report that I imagine would be written should someone observe Roth’s teaching today — as it was described in Scottoline’s essay.
COURSE: ENG 275, The Literature of Desire
INSTRUCTOR: Prof. Philip Roth
DAY/TIME: M-W 2:00-3:15
OBSERVATION: In today’s class session, Prof. Roth and his students reviewed Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” The course session consisted almost entirely of Prof. Roth engaging in a close reading of this work, with Prof. Roth systematically moving through the assigned text page by page while sitting behind his desk. No notes were consulted, nor were overhead projectors used. Students were not encouraged to engage the course or the lecture until the end of class, at which time they were asked if they had any questions. Five students out of fifteen asked questions while the rest passively listened.
EVALUATION: Professor Roth’s pedagogy leaves much to be desired. While he demonstrates a high degree of facility with the course material, it is unclear if his lectures reflect current scholarship about this subject or his own idiosyncratic reflections on the text, as he consults none of his prepared notes. In fact, his content is suspect for a number of reasons in this all-female class. Furthermore, Prof. Roth’s pedagogy is entirely lecture-based: he does not have his students engage in group work, make their own presentations, nor does he employ reading quizzes or in-class writing prompts. Worst of all, Prof. Roth does not employ any educational technology in the classroom. It is extremely unlikely that any students are getting anything out of this class.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Prof. Roth needs close mentoring to improve his pedagogy. If he seems unable or unwilling to diversity his teaching styles, I recommend that his lectures be videotaped one semester so that his seated courses can be replaced with MOOCs. In this way the University can more widely disseminate the same lecture content while building in more easily monitored assessments such as reading quizzes.