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What's Their Secret

By Ruby Gee     8/20/11 7:00pm

Bleary eyed but in cheery spirits, the students burst out of the humanities building chattering amongst themselves about their favorite Shakespearean works. It is 7:45 in the morning --- an ungodly hour of the day to be awake (and happy) by collegiate standards. 


Registration for Professor Dennis Huston's "Shakespeare on Film" (also known as ENGL 320), a class that is only offered once every two years, is a bit different: students must register in person at 7:30 a.m. Despite these conditions, students still line up in the chilly winter weather to sign up for Huston's famous English course. 


Part of the course's celebrity undeniably stems from Huston's reputation as a professor. Named Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement & Support of Education in 1989, Huston is known for his interesting assignments, affable manner with students and particular way of running his classes. 


Two elements notably characterize his classes: Socratic method-like discussions and powerfully delivered lectures. 


"From the beginning, I was conscious of performance as something important," Huston explained. "I grew up in a family where there was a lot of performance: acting, reading out loud, recognizing the magic that can happen in theatre … performance was always an active part of my life."


The discussion element of his classes was inspired by his experiences in law school. As a first year at University of Virginia law, Huston found himself paying more attention to how the material was taught rather than the actual course materials. 


"Even though I didn't like law school, I thought ‘these guys know how to teach,'" Huston said. "These guys know how to teach in really interesting ways because what they do is after they call on you at random, they ask questions that, if you answered correctly, they would then build on, modify and then ask you a newquestion."


Huston has his students write their own staging of a Shakespearean play as a final project for his "Shakespeare on Film" class. His inspiration for this assignment came from his prep school English honors teacher who had his students write imitations, or varieties of particular authors that they were reading. 


"I had a lot of good teachers in college and they were good in different ways," Huston mused. "Some were good at just being wonderful in the class, some of them were good in caring a good deal about students and talking to them … I grew to admire my teachers a lot."


Thus inspired by teaching personalities he encountered as a student, Huston developed the personal philosophy that forming friendships with his students would allow him ask better questions and make it more comfortable for them to contribute during class discussions. 


"One of the things that seems to me most interesting about teaching English is they [students] can see things you don't see that are every bit as important and perhaps more important than the things you see," Huston said. " Their answers are often as good as mine -- they're just different -- and because of that reason, I want them to feel free to disagree."


With an emphatic look on his face, Huston added a statement that resonated of the type of wisdom that one can only develop after years of teaching. 


"The only way to make them feel free to disagree is to let them know that you're their friend -- not some big professional who knows everything there is to know."


"What's Their Secret?" is a weekly feature that highlights a faculty member who has had a significant impact on Rice students.

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