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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Profs. need to force students to think

    Ryan Johnsoncolumnist
    Ryan Johnson
    columnist

    There are three types of professors at the UA: those who don’t teach, those who merely teach and those who have an impact.

    Students taking classes from the first group are the ones with a stack of flashcards memorizing a list to regurgitate later that day and then forget. They’re the ones with the optional final, the limited feedback and the non-existent discussion. They don’t get much from their classes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of professors at the UA in groupone.

    There are also a lot of professors in the second. They do a better job of teaching. Their classes may include reading good books, writing essays and holding discussion with their classmates. Students learn a lot from these classes, and good students fill their schedule with these while avoiding group one.

    But for a professor to be in the third group, he or she really has to make an impact. These classes force students to fundamentally examine who they are and what they stand for.

    The class will vary for each student. Maybe it was a student’s first exposure to philosophy, biochemistry or economics. Maybe it was the first professor who put an end to a student’s BS. For me, one class was International Studies 250.

    But another class was from a professor whose views I couldn’t disagree with more. I didn’t feel like he was actually teaching me anything, but later I learned that anything that forces students to think and examine who they are has a huge effect.

    Meet Adrian Esparza. If there were ever a professor that took full advantage of having tenure, it’s Esparza. The associate professor of landscape studies teaches his Sustainable Cities and Societies class (RNR 256) knowing full well he can’t be fired.

    Any student who’s ever been in the class or dropped it on the first day knows there’s never a dull moment.

    He curses. He aggressively challenges students. He espouses anti-capitalist ideology.

    Esparza tells his classes that most students don’t think and just regurgitate what others tell them. He says most UA students come from sheltered backgrounds that prevent them from seeing what’s really going on around them – be it corporate coercion, media manipulation or worse.

    And he’s not afraid to say it. He teaches the class with slide shows of problems with modern-day society. He encourages people to raise their hands to comment on what he’s saying, but any student is immediately rebuked. Aggressive confrontation is the norm.

    I took his course during the 2004 presidential election for extra effect. On the first day, he put up a picture of George Bush and said he couldn’t believe “”we elected this asshole.””

    A UA professor that dislikes the president? Never. But then he put up a picture of John Kerry and said that “”this asshole is not any better.””

    At first I thought Esparza was easily the worst professor I’d had at the UA, but time gives perspective. In class each day, I was nothing if not stimulated. I usually disagreed with him, but as he told other students that their rich suburban upbringing and lack of critical thinking means they don’t know what they were talking about, I fortified my opinions.

    I wasn’t one of the thoughtless ones, was I? Over the course of the semester, I was forced to come up with an explanation for all of my views.

    Usually, this meant that as he tried to rip economics to shreds, I thought of economic solutions to his problems. Auto-dependence that causes pollution? What about a higher gas tax?

    It turns out being called wrong in class and on a paper helped me grow, and I’m very glad I took the class.

    Esparza says that students often find his class a “”revelation,”” but others are resistant and blame the messenger.

    “”To them I can only say that I tried to accomplish what I think a high quality university education should do: teach students to value themselves, to believe in their ability to think, reason and navigate the complexities of society,”” he said.

    His class is entirely unconventional, but Esparza accomplishes, albeit awkwardly, the goal of forcing students to think.

    Every student should seek out classes that similarly force them to think. And every professor should insert a splash of Esparza and force students to examine their beliefs.

    Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies senior. He can be reached at letters@email.arizona.edu.

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