Re-creating the classroom

A Baker University classroom c. 1905

In 1866, Baker’s first graduating class of three students had made it through eight years of coursework.

Early professors followed a pedagogic philosophy that wasn’t as student-friendly as what scholars encounter today.

“High expectations often meant ‘I’m going to make it tough and not a high percentage of you will be successful,’” said Bill Neuenswander, retired professor of education. “Today, we’ve shifted from a focus on what we do to what students learn, so you will find most classrooms much more engaging. Today, high expectations means ‘I expect a majority of you to be successful, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.’”

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, curriculum and teaching philosophies remained fairly stagnant. William Alfred Quayle advanced the curricular experience in 1890 when he returned five years after graduating as valedictorian to become the University’s 14th president. During his leadership, Quayle brought ideas to his alma mater that conflicted with the linguistic focus of the University’s history, adding a strong emphasis on science, mathematics and newly-prominent subjects of the time.

Twenty years later, the University encountered another change. Dwindling numbers in the Baker Academy were attributed to the emergence of public schools throughout Kansas. In 1911, the Normal Department (teacher education) closed. Two years later, the Commercial Department (business education) followed suit. In 1917, Baker Academy’s enrollment had dropped to 30.

When Samuel Alexander Lough assumed the presidency that year, making him Baker’s second alumnus to return as President, the preparatory school was on the verge of extinction. By the time he left the University in 1921, Baker had eliminated all pre-freshman coursework.

As public education became readily available throughout Kansas, the number of students completing high school had risen immensely, but it took a national conflict to give that same boost to University enrollments.

“After World War II, you saw a much higher percentage of students enrolled in college,” said Neuenswander. “The GI Bill promoted that increase.”

As numbers rose, the relationship between student and professor remained distant. It would take another war and a revolutionary culture to change that.

Walt Bailey, 1962, returned to his alma mater three years after graduation as an art instructor. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Bailey, who retired from the faculty in 2007, has seen changes in the classroom experience and in educational expectations. Bailey said one of his earliest observations was a change the student-professor rapport.

“When I started as a student, the faculty was clearly seen by most students as relatively unapproachable,” Bailey said. “When I came back in the ‘60s as a faculty member, there was a real breakdown of the relationship between students and the faculty.”

In the late 1960s, Baker enrollment surpassed 1,000 as the nation was torn ideologically and in the midst of the Vietnam War. The classroom, just as did greater society, underwent a revolution. Students’ main concern was not solely scores but rather ideas and intellectual development. Interdisciplinary efforts were prevailing in the academic world.

“Everything felt like an experiment every day,” Bailey said. “There were no grades for a time. There were no three-hour classes. Interterm came during that time.”

Today, the classroom experience has shifted from a faculty focus to a student-oriented environment. Unlike in the classroom of 1858, the modern teacher attempts to engage students and accommodate not only success but also creative and critical development.

“The research is very clear – the more the learner is engaged, the more learning that is going to take place,” Neuenswander said. “The questions asked then are different than those asked now. Then, we memorized the 13 colonies and their characteristics. Now, we try to put it in context — ‘Why did those conditions exist?’ ”

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One Response to “Re-creating the classroom”

  1. ML Burkert says:

    I was a student at Baker during the early years (68-72) of “no grades” although we did have grades (Honors, High Pass, Pass, Fail). Also, all of our courses were FOUR hour courses and it was great! You could take a 16 hour course load with only four classes per day, four days a week. That made sense. The Pass/Fail system, although popular at the time made it difficult to get into Graduate School but not impossible. Baker has survived many hardtimes such as wars, civil strife and economic woes, yet she still soldier on. My hat’s off to Baker University.