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The Scarlet & Black

History Prof. Guenther reflects on teaching in town

Last Wednesday, Professor Mike Guenther started his four-week-long Bucket Course at the Drake Community Library entitled “U.S. Environmental History.” In this short course available to the Grinnell public, Guenther presents a series of four lectures aimed at connecting liberal arts academics to life beyond the classroom.

”[The class] is a survey of the relationship between people and nature and how that has shaped the course of U.S. history,” Guenther said.

Although Guenther teaches this subject at the College as well as through Grinnell’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program, he notes a few significant differences in his approach to each audience.

“I’m teaching a scaled-down version of it for the Bucket Course,” said Guenther. “I only have four lectures but I’m trying to hit a major theme for each century of American history in each. None of them are lectures that I would give on campus, because they are trying to cover bigger slices of the past.”

In addition to adjusting his teaching style, Guenther observes that the Bucketeers react differently to his lectures than his college students. Whereas college students seem to have a more academically based foundation for their observations, the Bucket Course attendees usually form their questions and comments based on a lifetime of experience.

“A lot of the questions I’ve seen so far are based on the rich life experience a lot of these people have or their travels or reading,” said Guenther. “Last week when I was talking about Native Americans, people who had spent a lot of time in the Southwest traveling to different communities were bringing up things. I’m just impressed and struck by how much experience they bring to the table. Not that students don’t have experience too, but I think students tend to focus on the conversation as being very academic, so they ask questions about the concepts and arguments, [while Bucket Course attendees] try to connect what they’re hearing with what they’ve experienced.”

Among those in attendance include Mayflower residents, retired professors, and people between the ages of 30-40. Although the term “Bucket Course” implies old age by referring to the students’ desire to learn everything before kicking the bucket, Guenther maintains that this course would be beneficial to students of all ages.

“It’s a great way to connect the College and the community,” Guenther said. “I think [college] students would get a lot out of it. It starts off with a half hour coffee social, and they could meet a lot of these people–there are some amazing people with amazing life stories.”

Guenther not only believes that the course itself would be beneficial for students to take, or even to simply sit in on, but also sees it as an opportunity for students to experience liberal arts education beyond the Grinnell campus.

“I think students would have a chance to get a look at what liberal arts education is about, which is about connecting ideas outside of the classroom,” said Guenther. “This would be a good model and place to think about how to continue on education after college. I wonder if they would welcome students to teach these courses. It would be a nice opportunity.”

Besides being able to share knowledge with a wide audience, teaching a Bucket Course helps the instructor find new means of expression, which further develops their own grasp of the material.

“I think a lot of my colleagues would get a lot out of this—it’s not just community service, it’s really good for their own experience with the material,” said Guenther. “Teaching itself is a very dynamic form of learning. Whenever you teach a subject, especially as you teach to different people you have to think about how to rephrase it, how to make complex issues make since to different groups of people, and in doing that you learn it much better yourself.”

Guenther concluded with the notion that these types of classes allow for the transmission of knowledge beyond the boundaries of the classroom or limitations to certain fields.

“There’s a place for non-specialized knowledge,” he said. “I’m not training future historians. I’m not talking to specialists in the field. I’m talking to a lay audience about the exact issues that I would in my courses.”

Guenther’s class is the final Bucket Course of the year, but the program will continue next year with new subjects.

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