Book from UCB professor offers look into his career, students

Posted Dec. 05, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.

THE THREE-LEGGED WOMAN AND OTHER EXCURSIONS IN TEACHING, by Robert Klose, Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2010, 206 pages, $24.95.

In the course of his quarter-century of teaching science at University College in Bangor, professor Robert Klose has had his share of memorable students. They have variously amused, irritated and moved him. “The Three-Legged-Woman” recounts many of those Excursions in Teaching and their broader significance. The book’s title derives from the insistence of one student that the photo he had discovered of a “three-legged woman in a porno magazine” represented a true form of evolution. By contrast, Klose’s concurrent lecture on the evolution of modern horses from puppy-sized ancestors had drawn skepticism from both that student and his classmates. What accounts for certain students’ ready acceptance of pseudo-scientific claims like this one? Klose has no magic answers, but he is hardly alone in his frustration over such apparently willful ignorance.

One need hardly be a teacher, much less a college professor, to appreciate the wit and wisdom, concern and compassion that pervade this book. Klose’s “small, impoverished, careworn” institution was discarded by the University of Maine in 1998 in a highly controversial decision and was eventually affiliated with the University of Maine at Augusta. An open admissions policy has led to a remarkable diversity of students, including a murderer, described as otherwise “a very nice person,” who was granted permission to take one of Klose’s courses.

Klose is clearly a sympathetic and caring instructor, but he is no patsy. Far from it! He insists on high standards, not least regarding writing, and extending to technical lab reports. Like many of us, he has come to lament the often negative effects of e-mails, texts and blogs on serious writing as ever more students feel ever less compelled to write beyond the first draft. Impatient for the kind of immediate responses they get in informal electronic communications, they frequently resent having to revise their formal college assignments. Equally dismaying to Klose, as to others, is contemporary students’ common decreased book reading; that in turn undermines their ability to distinguish good writing from bad, their own included.

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As a specialist in biology, Klose often deals with students who question Darwinism and evolution and who, in several cases, refuse to entertain the possibility of their religious convictions being scientifically wrong. Sometimes these students quit the course, but sometimes, more interestingly, they provide genuine scientific responses in tests and other assignments — but only under protest. As one outraged student once burst out, “For what you have taught us today you shall be damned to the everlasting fires of hell.”

Years ago, Klose was seduced by additional salary to teach in the University of Maine System’s original Distance Learning Network. Klose leaves us laughing as he recounts the challenges he faced in never being able to see the faces of his students “from away” — save for the handful in his high-tech classroom — but only to hear their voices, and then only if they called in with questions. Yet here, as throughout the book, Klose simultaneously brings us to tears — in this case as he recalls the several challenges these students faced as they often struggled to learn in an environment that, in those days at least, and despite a huge financial investment, wasn’t really up to par for long-distance learners.

Klose also encounters students who, at heart, don’t want to be in college but are there because of parental or peer pressure. Klose gently prods these students to reconsider their initial choices and not to feel like failures if they decide to become professional cooks or professional gardeners or auto mechanics. A few later update Klose with happy stories of their new and fulfilling occupations.

One can only envy the many students who have had the good fortune to study with Robert Klose. The rest of us, however, can learn a great deal from this master teacher by reading “The Three-Legged Woman.”

Howard Segal is a professor of history at the University of Maine.

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