by Christopher Eiswerth ’08
Walking into Professor Dave Ball’s classroom, you may be greeted with the music of DukeEllington, Nina Simone, or Eminem and asked to relate it to the work of Whitman or Eliot; you may be introduced to an unknown fellow student or asked to lead the class. You may debate the political events of the week, be invited to a reading, or even (if you’re lucky) force-fed doughnuts.
Each of these unorthodox beginnings is designed to draw students into the life of the class, into the “community of the mind.” “I’m a professor; I can talk for seventy minutes without a problem,” says Prof. Ball, “but class works better, students learn more when twenty people contribute five percent than when one person shares one ‘correct’ reading. That reading does not exist.”
Since coming to Dickinson last fall after earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University, Prof. Ball has structured his courses (ranging from American Modernism to Border Studies to Graphic Narratives) to incorporate this collective-based approach. Teaching texts from “The Waste Land” to America (The Book), Prof. Ball integrates lecture, student presentations, and discussion, making everyone responsible for the direction and substance of the class.
While necessary for learning, Prof. Ball does not want this discourse to end at the classroom threshold. “You come to Dickinson to learn, not just in seventy-five minute blocks, but constantly,” says Prof. Ball. “I want students debating and arguing and conversing about literature and race and politics not just in class, but in the dorms, in the dining hall. That’s why you go to college. That’s why I became a professor.”
In his first year at Dickinson, Prof. Ball has tried to encourage this extracurricular intellectualism by organizing a colloquium, where faculty share their research with students, and serving as a member and advisor of The Literati, a student-run group that meets to discuss contemporary literature over lunch. He says, “We need to nurture and strengthen an atmosphere outside the classroom where literature and ideas play a prominent role, where we as a community seek to learn and wrestle with these problems.”