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March 7, 2013

Remembering a Great Teacher:
'I Am the Messenger, Not the Message'

Thumbnail image for lence.jpg

By James M. Patterson

In 1999, I was a sophomore at the University of Houston when Dr. Ross M. Lence invited me to participate in a small, graduate seminar entirely dedicated to John Locke's Second Treatise on Government.  It was an experience I will never forget. During the first few weeks, I found myself utterly unprepared for the rigor and patience required to read and discuss the material. By the end of the first month, I grew so frustrated that, during a seminar, I lashed out at a graduate student. The room went silent. Ross slowly turned to me, stared for what felt like an eternity and said, "Mr. Patterson, in this course, I will think hard about what Mr. Locke says. Will you be doing the same?" When the class ended, he told me to come to his office immediately.

Once there, he ordered me to spend more time studying the course material. He also made me talk to him about the material before and after each class. In time, I became one of the students who congregated in his office, and even met at large gatherings at his home. At first, we followed him out of fear of failing his course, but we eventually followed him to understand why he told such unusual stories in lectures and how they reflected long-standing political or even existential problems. Later, we did it because he was a great friend and mentor.

You Must Defend the Girl Scouts

As I recall, my term paper for the course was an unwieldy mess, but Ross had not invited me to the class just because he believed I would benefit from the content the of course. He knew I was not ready for most of it. Instead, he meant it to be an initiation into the life of the mind. He was apprenticing me, as he had done for hundreds of students before.

I believe that what Ross did for his students is the central purpose of higher education, and I am not alone. His teaching method depended on turning the goal-oriented student--one who studies only the material that will appear on the test-- against himself. When students asked about tested content in his introductory courses, Ross always offered cagey, intentionally frustrating responses. In his higher level courses, he liked to assign papers early in the semester, which he would return the day after the drop deadline. When students would flip to the back to see their grade, all of them found--to their horror--that they had failed, some of them with marks in the 30s. If you were a goal-oriented student, you found yourself in a perfect storm: you were failing a class you could not drop, and it was taught by an apparently insane man (Ross rang goat bells and shouted half-way through his larger lectures to wake up students who had fallen asleep). In short, Ross had you exactly where he wanted you.

Ross provided the material in a way goal-oriented students had never seen before. Rather than shoveling out concepts and applications on slides or overheads, he would require students to defend the Girl Scouts against charges of being a Madisonian faction, intent on self-preservation by clogging the arteries of the nation. He demanded that his students speak to him after class, read books and articles not assigned in the syllabus, and report to his office at the crack of dawn. If these students wanted the credential they had to grow up, work hard, and regain the curiosity years of testing had nearly punished out of them.

When students insisted they be allowed to withdraw from the course despite the deadline passing, he would calmly direct them to see the director of undergraduate advising for the School of Arts and Sciences, even providing his office number. Students arrived at the office only to find Ross staring back at them with his impish grin.

He once wrote on a student's paper, "Young man, if you and I are going to communicate, we are going to have to settle on a common language. I prefer English." Ross's pointed, humorous comments were meant to get the students angry, drive them to his office for an argument, and make them work harder--even if just to prove Ross wrong. For Ross, it was all to set the students on their course for serious learning.

Prop Manager for Lysistrata

My favorite memory of Ross was in a course on the plays of Aristophanes. For our final, we had to participate in a full, outdoors performance of Lysistrata. Ross gave me a lousy part--Old Woman # 2-- and made me procure "props" for the play. He handed me $200 and said, "Mr. Patterson, I don't care where you find them or how you get them, but this play needs phalluses, and lots of them." A few of my friends ended up buying out two stores of the required items.

Ross was explicit about the ends, if not the means. In his teaching statement, he said, "I attempt to lead my students on a journey of the mind. But every day I remind myself that teaching is like missionary work, and that I am the messenger, not the message. I constantly strive to bring others to see the excitement, as well as the limits, offered by the life of the mind."

By the end of the semester, most students in Ross's courses were working twice as hard as when they first arrived, but they were also working differently, seeking to demonstrate mastery of deeper course concepts that they could then carry into other classes and into the rest of their lives. The reward for succeeding in one of Ross's classes was a love of learning. Ross always "graded on improvement," meaning he would give you as a course grade whatever you had gotten on your last grade in the class. However, by "improvement" he meant more than simply how well one had done on a paper or test. He meant how well students had started out on their lives of the mind, how excited they were by the intellectual opportunities of higher education.

Ross said at the end of his teaching statement about his own teacher, Charles S. Hyneman, "I often think of my teacher of his incredible kindness, of his depth of soul, and the power of his imagination. My real hope is that I too will be remembered by those who come after me with the same fondness. This is my philosophy of teaching: teachers love their own teachers, and they are loved in turn." Though I miss him terribly, I know that Ross left behind many who have picked up his mantle. It is up to us and those like us, to teach and defend higher education as an introduction into the life of the mind.



Comments (1)

T J Orson Olson:

Yes. A fitting memory to share for those blessed to inquire deeply - not merely instrumentally. And those also on the cusp of this discovery of its great satisfactions.

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