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A Teacher’s Teacher

Robert Garvey wins “U.S. Professor of the Year” award from the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

By Paul E. Kandarian

Professor Garvey with physics major Lori Masso ’01Bob Garvey is nearly as electric as the stuff being produced by the more than 20 tiny generators whirring away in his classroom.

"OK, so why is it harder to crank the handle when the bulb is on?" he shouts to the students who are pumping the handles of the little generators.

Garvey has the overhead lights off, the buzz of the generators and the ebb-and-flow glow of small light bulbs filling the room. The students stop cranking, Garvey flips the lights back on.

"Any ideas?"

One student ventures that it's a matter of resistance. Garvey smiles.

"Well, there's two meanings to 'resistance,'" he says. "Electrical resistance and the resistance of something like the Civil Rights movement."

Students smile as Garvey adds that this is "not an acceptable answer, but a good try. I like that."

This is "Physics of Everyday Life," general physics with an emphasis on how things work. And today's topic is electricity, that which powers CD players, dorm-room refrigerators, hair dryers, computers, pizza ovens, ATM machines, all the electronically important stuff in college life. With Janine Shertzer, associate professor and chair of the physics department, Garvey co-authored a Sherman-Fairchild grant that developed this course.

It is Garvey's lifelong work of making physics a less daunting affair for students-including his part in getting Holy Cross' First-Year Program up and running-that earned him a U.S. Professor of the Year award, given by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

That lofty accolade-Garvey was one of only four teachers so honored in the nation-doesn't mean much to the students trying now to figure out why it's harder to crank the electric motor when the bulb is on. And it's Garvey's job to make the lights go on in the students' heads, so they can figure it out for themselves.

He's loud, forceful, dynamic as he labors good-naturedly to drag the answer out of someone, anyone. When finally it clicks, when someone gets it-something to do with the work it takes to produce energy-he's so elated by the excitement of knowledge discovered that he slams his chalk down on the lab table with a wide grin.

Electricity is life and is all around, in clocks, cars, fans-and in the motors of student minds as they search for knowledge. And in this classroom, the battery in the motor is Garvey.

"Teaching physics is sometimes propaganda," Garvey says with a shrug as he sits in his tiny office before teaching that day. "Too often, teachers try to dazzle people with what you're dazzled by. It shouldn't be like that."

It isn't for Garvey, a guy who insists on making what he teaches relevant. And he clicks with students.

"He lays the foundation of physics, makes you see how it applies to life," says Derek DiRocco, a third-year biology major from Billerica, Mass. "I like it, it's a great course."

Even those who have to be here don't mind: "I have to take this course, but I really enjoy it," says Tony Gennaoui, a second-year premed student from Somerset, Mass. "With all the numbers and equations in physics, it's easy to phase that stuff out of your mind. But he keeps you interested."

What it's like to be a student

Associate Professor Robert H. Garvey doesn't look the part of college professor. A small-framed man of 56 with craggy facial features, droopy graying moustache and longish hair, he looks like he'd be more at home on the back of a Harley than in front of a classroom talking about time-dependent perturbation theory and the emission/absorption of radiation. 

But a professor he is, and winning the prestigious U.S. Teacher of the Year award, affirms that he's doing the job the right way. And while he's honored by the award, he's also quick to share credit with Shertzer, his co-author for the grant for the "Physics in Everyday Life" course that was part of his being named an award winner.

In fact, he's quick to point out that all he's done, he hasn't done alone. 

"I've been involved in a large number of things, but none I alone initiated," he says, deflecting credit from himself. "They were all collaborative efforts, it's not like I came up with something that changed the lives of 30 people."

One reason he got the award, many feel, was his part in getting the College's First-Year Program going; Garvey was the first director of the program which has reached its 10th anniversary. The interdisciplinary living and learning program was headed up by a group of  "extraordinary adventurous people," says Helen Whall, a Holy Cross English professor who worked with Garvey in its first year (Whall was the program's third director).

"That first year, his mode of getting it off the ground, his mode of leadership, was to draw the best out of everyone, which he still does," Whall says. "It's his humility that works, he directs quietly, subtly. He's like that as a teacher, too."

Whall is struck by Garvey's humble nature and says he doesn't know sometimes how much he's admired. She recalls one sartorially significant event during the first First-Year Program, where she noticed the first several rows of young men waiting for a speaking program to begin.

"They all wore beige chinos and white buttoned-down Oxford shirts," Whall says with a laugh. "They were all dressed like Bob Garvey.

"I can't tell you how important Bob was to the First-Year Program," she says. "He made a huge contribution toward creating it, but he let it become itself rather than imprint it with his personality. This program would not be where it is now without Bob Garvey."

Teaching in the world

One of his biggest contributions to undergraduate teaching, Garvey feels, was teaching for six years in the 1980s with philosophy Professor Clyde Pax, now retired.

"The kids had to do both philosophy and physics, and Clyde and I had to sit in on each other's course," Garvey says. "Clyde didn't know much science, and I didn't know much philosophy. I found it to be an eye-opening experience."

And an experience more teachers should try, he says.

"It helped me remember what it was like to be a student," he says. "As a result, I'm more patient with my own students who don't get it right away. You also get to see somebody else teaching, a very unusual experience in academia. If you sit in on a class at all, it's to evaluate the teacher, not experience the course."

And it made him rethink his teaching methods, he says.

"You sit in there and think, 'Would I teach this way?' and 'Gee, I didn't think of that,'" Garvey says. "It makes you reflect on your own teaching. It opened me up to seeing the way I learned physics was not for everyone.

"People who love physics, love physics, but it turns others off," Garvey says, adding that learning physics "shouldn't be like root canal" for students, it should be enjoyable.

"But physics teachers are usually unconsciously trying to train students to go to grad school," he says. "But the majority of students won't."

According to Manfred Euler, president of the International Research Group on Physics Teaching, as he writes on that group's Web site, "We have to convey the 'big ideas' of our discipline and make them accessible and sensible to our students in a meaningful and authentic way, which meets their expectations and needs."

Garvey couldn't agree more, and says that sitting in on other teachers' courses is an immeasurable help.

"You can sit in on almost any course outside your discipline and learn about teaching," he says.

In sitting in on Pax's course, Garvey says, he saw the teacher make philosophy relevant to students' lives, and thought, "Why not do the same with physics?"

Garvey knows that fewer students are majoring in physics every year, and he doesn't purport to turn that around.

"We have about six-to-eight declared majors a year," he says. "People see it as a lot of work without a lot of pay at the end. The Cold War used to finance a lot of defense work, but not anymore."

So it's his job, Garvey feels, to make the teaching relevant to every day life, and if that means cranking tiny generators in a darkened classroom, so be it. And, according to Shertzer, that's exactly the strength he has in teaching, and it's what helped him win the award.

"He never stops questioning the way to teach, and he's not afraid to abandon the traditional ways. He has rethought the whole general physics agenda, always emphasizing the application of the physical concepts to everyday life," she says.

She uses electricity and magnetism as an example. "The ability to convert mechanical energy to electrical power and electrical power back to  mechanical energy, influences every aspect of our lives. Many textbooks will devote pages to the torque exerted on a loop in a magnetic field and the theory of electromagnetic induction and then relegate the motor and the electrical generator to an optional section. Bob insisted that one of our first purchases with the Sherman Fairchild grant was a dozen motors and a dozen generators. He thinks the Industrial Revolution is important!" 

The course also includes a section on 20th-century physics. "Most of these students are not physics majors; this is the only physics course they'll ever take," Shertzer says. "We had better teach them something about lasers and radioactivity and nuclear reactions."

As to her partner in writing the grant winning such a prestigious award, Shertzer says, "He's so humble about it, it's typical of him not to take too much credit for it. No one realizes how many different things he's done here."  

Garvey is also Holy Cross' science coordinator, responsible for coordinating the partnership programs in science and math with the Worcester public schools. He has taught in the Youth Exploring Science (YES) program, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Science Workshop for Worcester public school science and math teachers, and co-developed, with Professor Jane Van Doren, a weather program for 400 sixth-grade students that he team teaches every May.

"The outreach he does in the Worcester schools is amazing," Shertzer says. "He brings in busloads of kids, teaches eight sections of the same thing. Everything he does, everything he teaches, he puts in 200 percent.

"He's not satisfied with the way things are," she says. "He's always trying to improve them."

"Make it relevant, make it interesting, make it real," might well be the mantra to Garvey's teaching. And, he would add, "make yourself human while you do it."

"I heard a student say one time that she was driving down the street and saw a professor of hers putting out the garbage," Garvey says, eyebrows raised. "And she was amazed by that, that a professor would be doing that everyday stuff."

Too often, that's the fault of academia itself, which tends to operate on a self-perceived theory of social superiority, he says. Garvey thinks the ivory-tower approach to teaching is nonsense and goes out of his way to show students he's just one of them, only with more degrees and years behind him, just a guy still eager to learn and as eager to pass along what he knows to others.

"I think a teacher should make the effort to say something to students to let them know that they know what's going on in the world, to show that not all teachers are totally cut off from the world."

Garvey, who joined Holy Cross in 1977 after getting an undergraduate degree from Loyola College and completing his graduate work at Penn State, says he was in college when President John F. Kennedy was killed, a day that makes everyone from that generation recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

"I didn't have a single teacher mention it," Garvey says, still incredulous at the thought. "Not one."

So just about every day, in every class, Garvey makes some reference to the news of the day, perhaps relating it to the lesson du jour, perhaps just making idle chatter about it, but always for a reason.

"You're just trying to let them know you're a human being," he says. "I don't want them to think I'm their buddy, I'm not, I'm their teacher. But I'm a human being."

Keeping it at that level makes teaching more relevant and keeps teachers more accessible to students.

"I always say if you can ask me a question that I can't answer," he says, "I'll find out the answer, and then we'll all gain."


Paul E. Kandarian is a free-lance writer from Taunton, Mass.



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