Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

John V. Knapp
John V. Knapp

William C. Johnson
William C. Johnson

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

August 22, 2008

The expert professor

John Knapp’s study of English Department colleague
becomes book on how to be a great teacher

DeKalb, Ill. — At the start of the fall semester of 1997, John V. Knapp set out to learn what makes an expert English professor. The research required studying one—sitting in on a course focused on 17th century writer John Milton and videotaping each lecture delivered by one of the star professors in the NIU English Department.

At the head of the class was William C. Johnson, who dubbed the course “Redeye Milton” because it was taught at 8 a.m. He began one of the first days of class in typical fashion by schmoozing with students. Talk soon turned to the death just days earlier of Princess Diana, and Johnson spent a good half hour chatting with students about the tragedy.

“I wondered why Professor Johnson seemed to be wasting so much time,” Knapp says. After all, he was there to identify expert teaching techniques, not conversational icebreakers.

But Knapp soon found the connection as Johnson seamlessly incorporated the current events into a classroom assignment. Students were asked to read “Lycidas,” a complex Milton poem that deals with death, and develop a small-group discussion that made direct connections between the poem and the Princess Diana tragedy.

“Without students even realizing he was teaching, Professor Johnson had just laid out the pattern for understanding the poem,” Knapp says. “Milton spoke to those students that morning as if he were standing in the room and not shouting from a distance of more than 300 years.”

Now Knapp has a new book out through University of Delaware Press based on the semester-long experience observing his colleague. “Learning from Scant Beginnings: English Professor Expertise” focuses on the expert moves that a professor makes in order to motivate students and connect them to literature, even when it's far removed in time and space from their experiences.

Knapp uses a variation of cognitive education theory called “situated learning,” a way of viewing learning that employs an initial master-novice relationship. The master's ultimate goal is to help the novice become independent through a series of steps, each one of which is attainable by the novice via imitation, self-discovery and exploration.

“William Johnson may be one of the few teachers at NIU who has had a whole university press book written about his teaching,” Knapp says.

Knapp himself holds a Ph.D. in English and is a veteran NIU professor, having trained hundreds of students to become high school English teachers over the past four decades. He conducted the research on Johnson while pursuing a second Ph.D., in educational psychology, which he received from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000.

“This is a natural outgrowth of my work preparing secondary teachers,” Knapp says. “In the last decade or so, there has been a spate of works that have come out on expertise in college teaching. But these other books almost always describe a professor who says, ‘Here’s what I do, and here’s the end product.’ As far as I know, there have been few other day-to-day empirical studies of an expert English professor.”

Johnson, known in the book as “Professor J., was a natural selection for the study. He was among the inaugural recipients of the NIU Presidential Teaching Award, given annually to the university’s top teachers, and also was recipient of the Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, an honor that is initiated by students.

So what exactly does separate a great professor from the merely good variety? In his book, Knapp identifies a number of qualities. They include:

  • a passion for teaching and love of the subject matter;
  • an ability to get to know students on a personal level as best as possible in a large semester-long course;
  • the use of multiple strategies to track and engage students who are struggling; and
  • the use of creative tactics designed to connect the material to students' lives.

Knapp adds that Johnson was patient. Most of the students who took the course on Milton were unfamiliar with his body of work. The professor nurtured their vocabulary and understanding—first at word and sentence level, and later leading them to overarching concepts and abstractions. When a student struggled during classroom discussions, Johnson moved on and then returned with “a softball question” in order to build the student's confidence.

Students in the class were required to work hard. “Professor Johnson really puts them through their paces,” Knapp says. He recalled that students didn't blink when Johnson asked them to memorize the first two sentences of Milton's masterwork, “Paradise Lost.” Later they realized that the first two sentences were a combined 26 lines long.

“Memorization is an old-fashioned teaching technique, but in this case it was important because students acquired the crucial skills of being able to note certain things about the work at the word and sentence level,” Knapp says.

Johnson also frequently praised students and sometimes cajoled them into responses. He was tough, too, when need be, once giving a student a private jawboning over tardiness. But the professor was careful to never embarrass a student in front of his or her peers.

“The standard model for teaching English literature is the lecture, with some small group work, a paper and a final exam,” Knapp says. “Professor Johnson did all that and so much more.”

Johnson, who is now entering his 40th year of teaching at NIU, says he learned from the semester-long experience as well.

“Having Professor Knapp be part of the class, both as observer and as participant, added a unique dimension to the teaching experience,” he says. “It didn't change what I was doing, but it allowed me to hold a mirror up to some things I value most concerning the teacher's role in the classroom—stimulating and encouraging students' growth, leading them to a place where they have a command of the material and an excitement for the learning process, and engaging them in the wonders of some great literature.

“Although Knapp’s book is about my work in a particular class, I hope the message that comes through is that, for me, teaching is more about students who learn than it is about teachers who perform,” Johnson adds. “Ultimately, all I do is create the conditions, provide some guidelines and encouragement, and participate in a dance in which the students learn that they can—and do—lead. Under those circumstances, it's always a win-win process and it yields some beautiful dances.”

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