March 2001


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First Course

I have never met a classroom I could love. They’re just not meant for that sturdy containers that they are. In fact, a well-designed classroom should disappear on you, make you just comfortable enough to take no notice of it at all for the hour or two or three that you spend in it.

I have, however, met many a classroom I could respect: the seminar rooms in the English department, for instance, just large enough to accommodate a long, serious table with twenty students gathered around it, mahogany or oak polished to an ancient patina by years and years of elbows. Then there are the second- and third-floor classrooms in the Cathedral. Their sizes and shapes vary wildly, but I respect them for the generosity of chalkboard space with which they have each been endowed—an amenity I appreciate since I write madly on the board when I teach. One little two-by-two-foot board can’t begin to contain all of the ideas that can whiz around a room when a class discussion takes off. I’m finding that out this semester, having returned to the classroom for the first time in 10 years. The class, a nonfiction writing course, is held in a beautifully modern lecture hall in the halfway-up-Cardiac-Hill Victoria Building, where the nursing school is housed. Our room features auditorium-style seating and AV-aids with all the bells and whistles for videotapes, slides, transparencies, even Power Point presentations. But the chalkboard is sadly small, with only two pieces of low-tech chalk to be found. In this new millennium of e-everything, some may imagine the lowly blackboard to be a dinosaur. In fact it’s placed to the side of the room, an afterthought. My students have to crane their necks to see.

My students. I’ve learned over the years that in a good class, the semester is a process, an unveiling, a revealing, of your students. You try hard simply to match a name to a face the first day as you run through the roster, and hope that it sticks. It won’t. For the first few sessions, your class is not made up of individuals. En masse, your students feel like a huge, unwieldy beach ball. You haven’t figured out yet where the handles are. But somewhere around week three, you start to know. You can call on each one by name. And lo and behold, you’re starting to get a sense of their characters—who you can count on to give the unexpected answer, who will reach deep and come up with an insight. You know who is a firecracker, which one has a quiet wisdom, who is right on the mark in a wonderfully righteous sort of way. I have a lot more to learn about this class—and a lot to learn from them. The remaining two-thirds of the semester will be a challenge and, with any luck, an adventure.

A classroom I could love would be that of our cover story—rustic, with no walls and the occasional four-legged visitor. Former Pitt Magazine staffer Mark Collins spent part of his summer in the great outdoors with the Honors College field course at Yellowstone National Park. His engaging account, "Up Close—from a Distance," can be found on page 12.

As we were about to go to press, we got word that Pitt Magazine had swept a few categories at the International Mercury Awards. Congratulations are in order to Creative Director Gary Cravener, who won a gold for the design of the September 2000 issue of Pitt Magazine; to Associate Editor David R. Eltz, who received a gold for his feature story "Fire in the Belly," September 2000; to former Associate Editor Mark Collins, silver, for the December 1999 feature "Dateline Pittsburgh: 999 AD." Pitt Magazine, honored with a gold medal for the September 2000 issue, went on to take Best of Magazines in the competition. Kudos to the whole team for their fine work.

Sally Ann Flecker, Editor in Chief

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