Paul Scudder 2018

Remarks from chemistry Professor Emeritus Paul Scudder at the May 18, 2018, Commencement ceremony.

I will start by thanking New College for 40 years of the highest level of intellectual engagement. Teaching is quite a challenge. I thank my colleagues who always answered my persistent questions.

When I came to New College in 1978 there was no Internet; it was just being invented. I expected to teach the same way I had been taught, by lecturing. I would bring in a hand-made book – my lecture notes – and would dictate them to my students, who would make their own hand-made book, even though the printing press had been invented over five centuries before.

My friend and mentor, New College professor Soo Bong Chae, told me an old saying, “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” In response, I began to add more active learning into my courses. I would introduce a concept then give the class a problem to work. I could see where the misunderstandings were. Teaching became a dialog and not a lecture. But that was not enough.

About 20 years ago, an alum told me a course in medical school required him to memorize several hundred drugs and their interactions. We would now say, “there’s an app for that.” We would not want physicians relying on memory for something that is more accurately stored in a database. Could I avoid turning my students into similar unreliable databases? Instead, I needed to implement an expert system on my students. How could I teach the critical thinking skills of an expert in my field?

We can’t teach critical thinking from the front of the class. Students have to be given problems with branches to explore and have the instructor guide and refine their decision-making. They need to learn from bad decisions, be encouraged to explore alternatives, and not be given an answer to memorize. What other possible things can happen? Why doesn’t this happen instead of that? Understanding the answers to these questions is key to getting to know how a system works.

Forward another decade, and students are using their phones as an extension of their memory. The internet is their personal database for all course content, it is almost always with them, and is often utilized in conversations. How are my courses to change now, with this resource so readily available? I must teach the critical thinking skills to distinguish truth from the nonsense so common on the internet.

Postman and Weingartner tell of a reporter trying to get Ernest Hemingway to say what was needed to be a great writer. “As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, ‘Isn’t then any one essential ingredient that you can identify?’ Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.'”

We have succeeded if we have activated and armed your crap detector. My charge to you is to keep it well maintained and don’t turn it off, even when the incoming information confirms your beliefs. Confirmation bias can be the most common way we fool ourselves. Always question the input. Always!

As a New College alum closes his NBC broadcast, “Thank you for the privilege of your time.”