In the presence of greatness

How important is charisma in the lecture hall? US history professor Jonathan Zimmerman looks at the teacher-hero phenomenon on campus and what it means for both undergraduates and academics

University of Pennsylvania history professor Jonathan Zimmerman explores the history of college teaching in the United States – from the 19th century to the present day – in his new book, The Amateur Hour. During the 1990s, the voice of the student became increasingly influential within higher education – here, Zimmerman addresses how students helped make stars of certain lecturers, and evaluates the role of charisma in the lecture hall.

At Yale, one student described a chemistry professor as an “anaesthetic”; in a physics class, another said that the best part of the course was “waking up and realising the lecture was over.” But other students described their lecturing professors in sacred and superhuman terms, echoing the hero worship that had surrounded selected teachers since the dawn of the university. “Wisdom drips out of every orifice of his body,” a student wrote, in praise of Yale religion professor Louis Dupre. “I felt like I was in the presence of greatness.” So did an undergraduate taking a history class with historian Jon Butler, saying that he would gladly wash Butler’s feet; in a course with a second Yale historian, John Demos, another student declared that Demos “has been touched by the hand of God”.

Such metaphors recur across student memoirs and evaluations, from the early 20th century into the present, reminding us about the love and power that a single charismatic personality can generate in a room of students.

Students have described professors in ‘sacred’ terms


“Literature was living, breathing, walking all around me, and I could barely contain the excitement,” a student at Pomona College wrote, describing the large lecture class taught in the 1990s by English professor Brian Stonehill. “My roommate and friends laughed at my new obsession, but couldn’t deny the facts. Something was going on, and we all knew Stonehill himself had everything to do with it.”

But nobody could say exactly what it was, of course, which was another hallmark of charisma. In Stonehill’s case, it was also enhanced by his tragic death in an auto accident at the age of 43. “Nothing is more difficult, I think, than to convey any idea of what it is that makes a great teacher great: it cannot be reduced to a method,” Stonehill’s department chair wrote, in a posthumous tribute to him. “So, except in the most superficial ways, I can’t tell you what it was that Brian did.” All he knew, the chair added, was that Stonehill possessed a “special magic” in the classroom.


The charismatic lecturer was a ‘character’ as well as a spellbinder, as eccentric off the podium as he was entertaining on it


Reflecting back on their own education, other professors in the 1990s used similar language to describe the “great teachers” of their youth: they possessed a kind of mysterious presence in the classroom, which was so indescribable that it made them greater still.

“The lecture has a quasi-religious character about it, since exalted speech partakes of the sacred,” historian Page Smith wrote. Like Mass or any other religious ceremony, a lecture was a dramatic act; the professor did not simply “say” the words but infused them with meaning via gestures, cadences, and intonations.

Sociologist Robert Nisbet likewise praised the great lecturers of his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley in the 1930s, when theatrical performers like historian Henry Morse Stephens strode the stage. Sixty years later, Nisbet could still conjure the “expression and dramatic intensity” that Stephens evoked when holding forth on the Jacobins, the Terror, and the rise of Napoleon. Stephens entered the lecture hall puffing a cigar and relighted it immediately after class, announcing that “no gentleman… could be away from his cigar for more than 50 minutes.”

The charismatic lecturer was a “character” as well as a spellbinder, as eccentric off the podium as he was entertaining on it. Most freshmen were “hero-worshippers”, Nisbet recalled. They fell hard for the “teacher-heroes” of Berkeley, he added.

But as Nisbet also observed, writing glumly in 1992, the large lecture course “is not as charismatic as it once was.”


It is immoral when the teacher becomes greater than the thing taught, living in the adulation of innocent youngsters – Robert Heilman


The leading figures on campus no longer taught undergraduate courses and certainly not introductory ones, which were sloughed-off on junior faculty and TAs. But the conventional wisdom on teaching had changed too: in the era of the New Progressivism, so-called active learning was “in” and the lecture was “out”.

It is tempting to dismiss glowing accounts of big-class lecturers – almost all white, almost all male – as reactionary nostalgia for an older America, where expertise was carefully bounded by race and gender; indeed, advocates for the student-centred approach often framed it as particularly appropriate for women and minorities, whose teaching styles were supposedly more “democratic” and less “authoritarian”. But female and minority professors were also powerful lecturers in their own right, often drawing on the verbal traditions of the feminist and civil rights movements.

What makes a star lecturer?


Arriving at Berkeley to teach Afro-American studies in 1971, black psychologist William Banks took the classroom by storm. Asked in a 2004 interview about the secret to his teaching success, Banks said it had less to do with any specific method than with the spirit he exuded.

“How important it is to introduce charisma to the class,” Banks explained. “That’s not a popular thing to say, but in my classes I give students somebody – a real person – to interact with, as opposed to just ideas… I employ irony, and just sort of bring myself into the situation to give people something to react to other than just the material.”

To Banks, that approach – the teacher in front of the room, riffing with the students but still very much in charge – reflected his own African-American roots. “It’s part of black culture, that kind of expressive culture that argues back and forth,” he observed. Banks often deliberated with himself as he lectured, taking one position and then the opposite one. That gave students a model for entering the dialogue with him, when they felt ready to do so.

Banks’s apologetic aside about charisma in class – “that’s not a popular thing to say” – spoke to the ongoing suspicion of it in American college teaching.

Since the early 20th century, students had raved about theatrical display in the lecture hall and professors had reviled it; skill at the podium marked the popular teacher as a “mere entertainer”, the most dismissive label that an academic could receive.

Lecturers aren’t always pleased to be labelled ‘entertaining’


English professor and longtime University of Washington department chair Robert Heilman went even further in a 1991 essay entitled ‘The Great Teacher Myth’, which cast charismatic professors as flat-out frauds. Heilman likened them to the figure of John Keating in the 1989 hit movie Dead Poets Society, where we never see Keating – a prep school teacher played by Robin Williams – actually teach any content; he instead runs a “special classroom show”, which is all the more injurious to students because it is intoxicating to them.

“It is a rare university that does not have its own resident Keating,” Heilman wrote. “He tends to become the local Great Teacher, a resonant voice that beguiles its publics (undergraduates and off-campus auditors) while leaving colleagues unmoved… It is immoral when the teacher becomes greater than the thing taught, living in the adulation of innocent youngsters.”

A recent book about efforts to reform college teaching concludes with a plea to educate the public about quality college instruction, which involves student activity rather than professorial performance.

“The challenge these days is getting beyond the cult of personality, which leads to good teaching being equated with an engaging TED talk and entertainment trumping substance,” the authors conclude. A popular teacher may not be a good one, they argued, and Americans needed to learn the difference.

The preceding is an extract from The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, by Jonathan Zimmerman, copyright 2020. Used with permission from Johns Hopkins University Press.


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