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October 24, 2002

ON TEACHING: Robert Matson

An award-winning professor at Pitt’s Johnstown campus says that content alone does not a good teacher make. “I devote nearly as much attention to the science and art of presentation as to my academic discipline itself,” says Robert W. Matson, professor of history in the Division of Social Sciences. “My classes are in a more-or-less constant state of revision, even those I have now taught many times over. I never offer a course without incorporating new material or trying new methods of presentation and evaluation.”

Matson, who is of Finnish ancestry, has taught a variety of courses, large and small, including beginning and intermediate Finnish, introductory U.S. history, recent American history, British history, diplomatic history, the history of religions and this term’s Film and History.

“I started teaching 30 years ago, in a junior college in Oregon,” says Matson, who came to UPJ from that state. “The time has just flown.”

Matson has been teaching at Pitt-Johnstown since 1983, and last spring received the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In announcing the award, UPJ President Albert E. Etheridge said of Matson, “He is an accomplished teacher and scholar. His students find him to be progressive, inspirational and challenging. They attest to his demand for excellence and to his rigor in the classroom. Additionally, his students view him as a motivator, as a mentor and as an individual for whom they have tremendous respect.”

Social Sciences Division chair James Alexander calls Matson an extraordinarily gifted classroom instructor. “In each of his annual reviews, he has been placed at the top rank in teaching effectiveness, based on his innovative classroom approaches, his offering of new courses, his very high student opinion surveys and the large number of students who have sought his directorship of their senior theses in history.

“His lectures are meticulously crafted collages of ideas, information, visual images, spoken word and film, in which he seems, to the unacquainted eye, to be moving randomly and casually from moment to moment. But I have watched carefully how these have been structured, and the pedagogical precision is there, and is remarkable,” Alexander says.

Author of two books and numerous articles, book chapters and reviews, Matson is a frequent conference presenter and belongs to several professional societies, including the World War II Studies Association, the International Association for Media and History, the American Historical Association and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

He also served as history department chair at Johnstown, 1990-1994.

He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, an M.A. from San Diego State University and earned his B.A. magna cum laude from California State University at Fresno.

If Matson has one rule of thumb on teaching it is: It’s a sin to bore people. “I believe it is one of the missions of a committed scholar to show students that becoming deeply absorbed in meaningful study is, in fact, highly entertaining.”

This teacher-entertainer moves like an actor. Comfortable and familiar with the classroom/stage, its nooks and aisles, its lighting and props, Matson weaves through the spaces engaging students with riveting bright-blue eyes. He is controlled and confident, but enthusiastic and upbeat. He knows his audience by first name early in the semester. He knows his lines, but he can improvise: He asks and fields questions, working the answers right into the script.

“One of our theatre professors here said to me, ‘You’re an actor. You’re aware of the experience of teaching while it is happening,’” says Matson. “I think many professors are not. I come to campus a couple weeks before school starts and I go into my classrooms and I feel a need to get comfortable with the space and think about where am I going to be when I say such and such.”

It’s this commitment to preparation, coupled with a burning desire to share “the thrill of learning,” that helps counter the stereotype of history as the sum of boring facts from a bygone era.

It’s not any more challenging to teach history than another subject, Matson says. “I do what I enjoy, and I think that’s the real key to teaching, anyway. If students see, whatever the subject, that you really are enthusiastic about it, there’s a human interaction that occurs, and they’re drawn to the subject.”

He says he confronts students in his classes who come with misconceptions about history. “I actually say to students in my introductory classes: ‘Don’t tell me you don’t like history, because everybody loves history! We all do history all the time. We humans are the only beings who orient ourselves by thinking forward and backward in time, and we love to do it. It’s meaningful to us. The first thing you students do when you come to campus and make new friends is to start telling your story. The first thing you do is history.’”

What’s really at issue, he says, is the small, but sometimes difficult step between personal history and history as subject matter.

“What students don’t like is that, when we’re doing history of America or of Western civilization, they don’t know the data. They weren’t there. And so there’s work to do to learn it. It’s work they don’t like to do.”

But when the work becomes fun, when the students are invested in working to learn, the rewards pay off in life, Matson says.

“If I can engage them and be able to say, ‘Of course you have to spend some time learning information and of course I’m going to test you just so you can prove to me that you’re giving some ‘oomph’ to this, some good attention to it, but testing is not what’s this is all about, it’s about learning. And that learning carries over to your whole life.’

“’History, after all, is about life. History essentially is about human beings and what we are like. The more you can know about the way human beings behave in certain circumstances, the better prepared you’ll be.’”

Former students attest to his persuasiveness.

Jason Wojcik, an instructor of humanities at Cambria County Area Community College, credits Matson’s teaching as the inspiration to pursue history. “I can really say without his influence and support I highly doubt that I would be a college history instructor today,” Wojcik says of his former teacher. “He made me believe, for the first time, that I could do anything that I wanted with my life with hard work and dedication.

After a taste of Matson’s teaching as a freshman, Wojcik took several more of his classes toward a B.A. in history, earned in 1996.

“He was very audio/visual oriented — especially with the use of his slides of historical places and figures,” Wojcik remembers. “He really brought history to life. He also displayed a genuine love of the subject matter, which many ‘typical’ professors did not.”

Recent UPJ grad Brandon Newill, who also majored in history, says he took several classes with Matson, including The Civil War and Reconstruction and Reform.

“Dr. Matson held nothing back and his courses enthralled me. They were brilliantly taught,” Newill says. “These two classes brought a deep meaning and explanation to exactly why the war itself had taken place and what happened after the Civil War. Dr. Matson presented the material in such a way that even students with low levels of historical interest were particularly fond of the classes.”

Matson’s own interest in history was nurtured by his father and grandfather who were voracious readers and so interested in history that historical places were part of most vacations’ itinerary. Matson continues to supplement his courses with pictures he’s taken of historical sites.

“But I was interested in a number of things when I entered college, and wasn’t sure I’d major in history. I had good teachers, including good teachers in sciences, which drew me to take classes that I wasn’t all that interested in because these teachers intrigued me.”

Reflecting on his own experiences as a student, Matson says he, sometimes unconsciously, built up a skill set of teaching techniques that he now employs in his own courses.

“A lot of my ideas about teaching came from very practical and common sense experience: What did I like when I was a student?

“When I started college, a neighbor gave me a thick book, a kind of diary, and it included a section for notes on every course you took.”

So Matson began writing notes about his classes.

“Somewhere along the way I realized that I was writing reflections about the teaching. Some of my classes just felt better. I enjoyed them, irrespective of subject or method, and I began to think, Why is that? What makes that work for me?

“So, by the time I started teaching, I had compiled a list of qualities that I wanted to somehow embody: That person handled the classroom well; that person wrote a good syllabus; that person really knew how to bring day-to-day life into the classroom; that one was good at leading seminar discussions; I like the kind of comments that that person wrote, and so on. There are qualities that apply across the board when it comes to good teaching,” whether the class is a seminar with a handful of students or a large lecture course.

Although most of his courses average in the 20-student range, Matson taught what he believes was the most heavily enrolled course in the annals of Pitt-Johnstown, an introductory survey course with 238 students.

How did he engage so large an audience?

“You need to recognize that there is a crowd psychology,” Matson says. “The same students who say they feel unengaged in a large class will go to a football game and feel something emotive, and you can do that in a large class.”

He says that students asking questions during a lecture can be a distraction. But he wanted the class to hear questions from each other, instead of seeking him out privately after class.

“So I said, every Friday we’ll take 20 minutes and take questions on what we talked about this week, so ‘You be ready,’ I warned them. And I got a microphone with a very long cord and I told them I’m going to do my ‘Phil Donahue number’: ‘Who’s got a question? Okay, there. Pass the microphone up there.’ And I made it sort of a game. And it became all right in their eyes to ask a question.

“Once in a while someone would ask a stupid question, and I’d say, ‘Well, that broke the ice, didn’t it? Now, who has a relevant question?’ So, you can kind of direct it, still have fun and engage the students all at the same time. I love to say to students, ‘You brought up a point I never thought of.’ I love that. ‘What does everybody else think about this?’ It’s infectious.

“Engaging them is not hard to do. I don’t teach from the ‘scarcity of intelligence model.’ I sometimes say to students: You probably have had teachers who taught from the standpoint that there are very few really smart people and they really just wanted to teach to them, and the rest of us lummoxes are left out.

“I don’t believe that. I believe that I’m facing a room full of bright people with all kinds of different talents.”

Matson says educational research as well as his own teaching experience support the theory of multiple intelligence, that students have different kinds of intelligence and employ different learning strategies, but some compromise is necessary.

“In some of my classes I insist on doing group projects, for example. I do try to acknowledge that students have different personalities, and some will have more trouble with group assignments. ‘But I won’t teach it any other way, because that’s the right way, and you must learn to cope with that,’ I tell them. Life is like that. Everything in our jobs is not always to our liking and doesn’t always suit our personalities. That’s why I have office hours and e-mail. ‘Come to me and we’ll talk it through,’” he tells students.

Matson reconciles his popularity among students and his reputation as a demanding teacher by insisting the two go hand in hand for good teaching.

“One of the foulest smelling red herrings that is dragged across the path when you talk about good quality teaching is the very weak professor who buys popularity with easy tests,” Matson says. “I don’t know anybody like that! Maybe there are some, but not here at Pitt there aren’t, at least that I know about.”

He says the best professors are usually the toughest.

“Some of my professors who were good classroom performers, and who made you laugh and made class enjoyable, were also very tough graders who required a lot of work. But because I felt some kind of affection for them, I remember that I wanted to do well. I wanted to show them that I had the goods. So I long ago abandoned this idea that the austere, dour academic was really the only rigorous professor.”

Matson typically requires attendance, participation in small group and class discussions, readings for every class, several projects over the semester and a quiz at the start of each class, all described in a detailed syllabus.

Students dislike mystery about where the class is headed and what their responsibilities are, he says. “What I try to do is to tell classes right away: Here’s what we’re going to be studying, and here’s the way I’ve chosen to examine it. You have to do these kinds of things, and here’s how the grade will be determined.

“As a student, I had worked very hard to get enough knowledge in my subject to be a good teacher, but I was so envious of what I watched my professors doing: What a wonderful career! When I go in front of the classroom, I told myself, I’m going to savor the experience, every moment of it. I was really determined to enjoy it and, I must say, I have. As I often say to my students, “Isn’t this fun? Aren’t we having a good time here?’ And I really believe they are. In any case, what could be more thrilling and engaging than rigorous thought?”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 5

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