Dean Hammer arrived at Franklin & Marshall College in 1994, a proponent of a pedagogical method based on posing questions, problems or scenarios rather than drilling facts and figures. Twenty years later, the John W. Wetzel Professor of Classics and Professor of Government said he continues to hone his brand of inquiry-based learning, which he believes is vital to teaching students how to think and write critically.
During those years, Hammer has been lauded for his writing and research, as the 2006 recipient of the Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship, and his skills in the classroom, as the 2013 Recipient of the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Hammer likes to embrace new ideas and the challenges they create. When he became don of New College House in 2010, he called it "a way for me to think about how to extend and redefine the nature of the classroom and the nature of my relationship to the intellectual life of my students."
Recently, Hammer authored "Roman Political Thought: From Cicero to Augustine" (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and edited "A Companion to Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic (Wiley Blackwell, 2015).
In this occasional feature called "Three Questions," Hammer discusses why Roman political thought and Greek democracy is still relevant today, how he came to follow the "guided inquiry" form of teaching, and why writing is even more critical in today's digital age.
Why is it important for students today to understand Roman political thought and Greek democracy?
What I argue in the book and what I teach in class is that the Romans and the Greeks give us an enriched vocabulary for understanding politics and communities. I think they give a much more nuanced understanding of different types of power and different types of authority. And I think they also struggle with what holds a community together, because it's not obvious. There isn't a constitution, for example, or a bureaucracy, or even what we would recognize as a police force. The Romans and Greeks help us think about our own communities and encourage us to ask fundamental questions about what holds us together or threatens to tear us apart.
How did you come to choose your teaching method of "guided inquiry?"
I was teaching at a different institution. I walked into a class one day and a student was talking to another student, asking a question that, to my mind, was so basic. It wasn't that student's fault that he didn't understand the material. It was that he didn't know what question to even ask, to know when he was actually lost in something. I realized when that student asked that question, he was showing he had missed almost everything that had been talked about in the weeks before. So I began thinking, "How do I get students to actually know what they don't know?"
As it happened, I was about to attend some University of Chicago workshops on critical thinking. What I learned changed my thinking about my role in the classroom. I came back the next week and tossed my lecture notes. I began experimenting with a different approach of getting students to know what they don't know, and then empowering them to teach each other and figure out how to make sense of those things. It's been a 20-year experiment. I've drawn from other models of guided inquiry, learned a lot from my colleagues, and modified my own approach as new situations arise and as new ideas work or don't work. Over the years it has evolved as a model and it continues to evolve as a model.
Is writing still as important today as it was before the digital age?
My students will tell you -- and I never tire of telling them -- that writing is a process of thinking. When you begin writing, when you value writing, it's at that point that you actually begin taking an interest in something. Here's an example: I may have a rough outline of what I want to say. Yet within three sentences of writing, I am doing something almost entirely different than what I initially imagined, because in the act of writing I’m developing the logical links, I’m developing the connections, I’m seeing the ties and relationships of language. And as I’m seeing it written down in front of me, it changes from when it was wandering around in my mind.
Writing is every bit as important now as it was then because it is the way we are able to think through and communicate important issues and our own thoughts and ideas to others. I think the digital age only makes the accessibility of writing, the immediacy of writing, and the varieties of writing that much more complicated. Understanding that writing is a process of thinking and an act of communication changes how students write.