It’s no secret that Penn academia can be overwhelming with its 300–person lecture halls and heavily weighted exams. These five teachers, nominated by students they have taught in the past year, help to bring the overall anxiety down a notch by creating unique and positive learning cultures in their classrooms. 

Bruce Kothmann: MEAM 545 (Aerodynamics)

Bruce Kothmann wants his students to get comfortable with mistakes, because they will make a lot of them in his class. “I’m giving them a problem almost every lecture that I don’t think they’re going to be able to get right,” he says. But that’s all part of the plan in his active learning classroom, where experimentation is the key to comprehension. 

“Think about how most of our classrooms are set up: the teacher tells you how to do something, the book shows you an example, and you’re supposed to do the homework problems and get them all right. But I want the problems to be interesting in a way that students struggle with them and go, ‘I don’t think I can get this right.’ That’s good! Now let’s have a conversation about why you’re not getting it right.”

Kothmann teaches in rooms that have walls that double as whiteboards and grouped seating to facilitate this type of discussion and exploration, which he thinks is the key to true learning. 

Kothmann recalled a student of his who had tried and failed to build a feedback circuit. The student’s mistake started a broader discussion between him and Kothmann about the concept of a feedback circuit itself, leading to the eventual creation a more original and efficient circuit than if he had simply succeeded on the assignment the first time around. 

“Students need to be able to do something that doesn’t work without it meaning that they fail or get a bad grade,” he says.

Marie Gottschalk: PSCI 010 (Race, Crime, and Punishment)*

Don’t be expecting to get away with texting in Marie Gottschalk’s freshman seminar—from the moment students enter the classroom to when they walk out, technology is not allowed. 

“I found that I would walk into a classroom and no one would be talking to one another,” Gottschalk says. “They would all just be looking at their technology and it would be absolutely silent. It’s helped to get people talking about the coursework and, for first year students, to be getting to know their classmates.”

The technology ban is only one of the many ways Gottschalk has been able to foster high levels of engagement and community in her freshman seminar. She likes to get her students off campus by taking them on field trips (last fall, she took her students to visit the courts of Philadelphia) and also holds mandatory office hours to encourage the development of a strong professor–student relationship. 

“Students have trouble talking to faculty,” she says. “Don’t just dash off an email to me, which kind of encourages a ‘jet–skiing’ kind of thinking rather than a ‘deep–diving’ thinking. That’s one of the reasons I love the office because, even in my American Presidency lecture class, people can come here and we can deeply engage in the issues, and not just in a one–sentence back and forth.” 

Gottschalk especially enjoys working with freshmen. She disagrees with any professor who may say these college newbies are just “glorified high schoolers," but argues that they tend to work harder than their older counterparts and are “much more open to their environment.” 

As a side note, check Gottschalk out in the Oscar–nominated documentary, 13th, for her work in criminal justice reform.

*This freshman seminar was taught in the Fall 2017 semester, but we felt Gottschalk deserved recognition, nevertheless. 

Toni Bowers: ENGL 060 (Early British Novels) 

No matter what the topic of discussion is for a given class, Toni Bowers just wants to make sure all of her students feel comfortable making their voices heard. 

“A lot of my job is moderating two extremes,” she says. “There’s the person who won’t talk unless they absolutely know what they are saying and the person who will talk endlessly in order to figure out what they mean. They are different kinds of thinkers.” 

Both of these thinkers have a place in Bowers’ English course, but she sees particular importance in drawing out students who fall into “habits of silence.” One way she does this is by crafting the discussions around the students’ areas of interests so that they are more likely to contribute their opinions.

“If I ask the group to come to class with questions, then I can ask [a quieter student] to read their question and then the conversation is on the wavelength of a person I want to hear from.”

Bowers believes that the pressures that students face academically at Penn are “artificially imposed” and aren’t necessary to the learning environment on campus. 

“This semester, I walked into the class, students were chatting, and one student was saying that her teacher in some class had said to the group that he doesn’t want them jumping off the cliff, but that they should always feel as if they are teetering off the edge. And I felt like, no, I don’t want that. Those kind of environments foster competition, nervousness, anxiety, and a fear of making a mistake. And people need to be willing to make a mistake.”

Bowers, instead, wants her class to be a place where students can “float ideas that aren’t necessarily formed” to the class or take a risk with their thesis for an assignment without fear of judgment from herself or others. 

“I want people to feel comfortable socially and questing intellectually.”

Samantha Gillen: ITAL 120 (Elementary Italian II) 

Having an encouraging teacher in an unexpected area of study can be life–changing, a phenomena that Samantha Gillen can vouch for firsthand. 

Gillen didn’t start learning Italian until she was a junior in college and admits that she was largely motivated to take the course so that she could fulfill her language requirement. 

“I had a truly wonderful teacher for Italian II—she was a graduate student teaching the course, as I am now—and she was just so enthusiastic and so positive that she made me want to go on and pursue a Master’s degree in Italian. It’s honestly all because of that one person.”

Gillen aims to instill a similar passion in her students by creating “good vibes” in class and making the foreign language seem less foreign by allowing her students to insert their own interests into the coursework. She referenced a favorite exercise that they had done a few weeks prior where the students had to act out famous pairings in Italian. 

“It’s such a universal idea—you can apply pairs of friends or enemies to sports or pop culture or history, even—so I think giving them those options to be creative is really helpful for them wanting to and feeling like they are able to participate.”

One can assume that part of the reason students love Gillens’ class is because Gillens loves her students. 

“I think that, for the past two semesters, I can honestly say I can’t remember a time when I was leaving the classroom for the day feeling that I had failed my students or that they had failed me. It’s wonderful to see them progress.”

Zack De Piero: WRIT 083 (Theories of Comedy) 

Zack De Piero is one of those teachers that you wish you could be friends with. Luckily, he thinks the same thing of his students. 

“I was not expecting their social intelligence to be so strong, compared to their book smarts,” he says, referring to his initial expectation of Penn students upon arriving on campus as a writing seminar professor this past fall. “But you guys are cool.”

Not many students would refer to their writing seminar as one of their favorite classes at Penn, but De Piero’s course makes this list because of the strong relationship he creates with his students. When asked how he interacts with his class on a daily basis, he says that he “starts out by asking how they’re doing.”

“I try to show students that I am for real, for real, listening to what they’re saying,” De Piero continues. “For instance, if a student tells you that they are applying to a scholarship, if you can somehow follow up on that down the road, people start to realize that you’re taking them seriously and that you care about them.”

He also believes strongly in the importance of the critical writing program. “Writing studies is like a frittata,” he explains. “You’ve got these vegetables that are the various academic disciplines at Penn, and my job is like the egg, trying to move all around [and capture] the vegetables. We’re interested in the production, consumption, and distribution of texts in all of these fields.”

Nevertheless, De Piero realizes that “burnout is a thing” and tries to make the rigid writing seminar model more flexible when he can, pushing assignments forward or backward depending on his students’ stress levels. 

“Students need a break once in a while,” he says. “We’ll be okay, things are good.”