Skip to main content

Harrison Kleiner "Inspiring Wonder"

“It’s not success if students change what they think. It’s success if students think about whatever it is that they think, more deeply, more clearly and substantively.” Dr. Harrison Kleiner, Senior Lecturer of Philosophy in the Department of Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies at USU, measures success by the increased depth and ability a student has to reason. Such a measure for success leads to overall intellectual enrichment for his students. Dr. Kleiner has been a lecturer at Utah State for the last eleven years. During that time, he has taught general elective courses and many of the required depth courses students take at USU. As a lecturer teaching four courses a semester, Dr. Kleiner recognizes the opportunity he has to influence the lives of many students. This article explores how Dr. Kleiner structures his classes and contributes to students’ educational experiences at USU, while enhancing students’ opportunities to learn through the use of undergraduate teaching fellows.

Dr. Kleiner has taught at Utah State for the past eleven years. While it was his wife’s career path that initially brought them to USU, it has been his passion for philosophy and love for USU that has kept him here. Kleiner started out as an undergraduate majoring in political science with plans of becoming a lawyer. Shortly after taking his first philosophy class as a sophomore to meet one of the requirements for his major, he found an interest in philosophy. He was drawn to the notion and thought that was given to first principles, basic and foundational assumptions that cannot be further deduced from other assumptions or beliefs. He took another philosophy class and soon ended up being a double major in philosophy and political science. When asked about his time here at USU as a philosophy lecturer, Kleiner replied, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Some of its selfish, if I’m being totally honest. I thought to myself, I want to have a job where I can spend all of my time thinking about really cool questions.”

Today, Dr. Kleiner orients all of his classes around what he calls, “big, lived human questions,” such as what is it like to be human, what kind of life should I live, and what sorts of things should I strive for? When lecturing a large audience of students that come from all different colleges and fields of study, as Dr. Kleiner does in his general education courses, there is no guarantee students will have an interest in the subject matter. In any given semester, Dr. Kleiner teaches around three general elective courses and one upper division philosophy course that is sometimes a DHA. He shares that the biggest difference between teaching upper division philosophy courses and general elective courses is “when you are taking upper division classes in your major, everybody there is intrinsically interested in the material. They are excited to be there. They like this stuff; that is why they are majoring in it. They bring in with them background content, knowledge and abilities, but they don’t have to be sold on the class because they are majoring in that field.” This is not typically the case with general education courses. Dr. Kleiner explains, “A lot of the students come in with, what is in my view, really problematic understandings of what education is all about. They think the only thing they should be doing is courses in their major and this other stupid stuff is just what they have to do to cross a box off in the Registrar’s office.”

Dr. Kleiner tries hard to disabuse this view of education. He strongly believes and advocates that general education is at the core of students’ college experience. The broad thinking that taking general courses generates for students is valuable. An example of this can be seen within the general elective classes Dr. Kleiner teaches. After all, when it comes to answering the “big, lived human questions” in his classes as mentioned earlier, “it doesn’t matter what students do – they are going to be a human.” Thus, as Dr. Kleiner points out, thinking deeply and clearly about that condition is useful.

One of the notable ways Dr. Kleiner structures his classes to better suit the needs of his students, while providing further opportunities for other students, is through his use of UTFs. A UTF is an undergraduate teaching fellowship. UTFs provide great opportunities for students that are interested in graduate school or pursing an academic career as well as beneficial to students in Dr. Kleiner’s classes. As one can imagine, in a class of 275 students, it becomes an impossible task for a professor to grade all of his/her students’ papers. Before Dr. Kleiner had UTFs, his class was structured in a way that students would attend lectures and be given multiple choice scantran tests. Now, however, the UTFs make it possible for Dr. Kleiner to give his students daily writing assignments or what he calls reading questions. The reading questions require students to write a summary of the important claims, terms, and arguments found in their daily reading. With one UTF to about every forty students, Dr. Kleiner’s students are able to receive consistent and reasonably substantive feedback on every writing submission. The feedback students receive is ungraded, but is calculated into what Dr. Kleiner calls a diligent score. In other words, the student’s efforts are graded on the criteria of did they complete all of the assigned parts? In addition, the UTFs will decide if the students did a good job, were they competent in their writing? If so, the UTFs refer the writing submissions to Dr. Kleiner and he decides if they were competent or not. Competency in the course content, as well as other course objectives, such as analytical reading and the ability to think deeply about the course readings, are desirable learning outcomes for the USU 1320 course. After all, these are skills that will not only help the student to be successful in Dr. Kleiner’s courses, but will help them throughout their education and human experience.

The inclusion of UTFs in courses like USU 1320 has, as Dr. Kleiner says, “monstrously improved the course learning outcomes.” The individual feedback students receive from the UTFs on each and every writing submission as well as from Dr. Kleiner on at least two of each student’s writing submissions helps the students to improve in their analytical thinking and writing skills. In addition to reviewing writing submissions, UTFs also provide students with the opportunity for supplemental instruction in a smaller group setting with UTF recitations offered twice a week. Here, students can ask questions and discuss the course’s weekly assigned reading and UTFs can experience what it’s like to teach. Students are not required to be philosophy majors to be UTFs. The reason for this is both practical and strategic. The philosophy major is small, so casting a bigger net for UTFs offers the opportunity to more students and can be seen as an opportunity that enhances a student’s overall liberal education.

Not only has Dr. Kleiner’s use of UTFs vastly improved the experience of students in his classes, but it has also opened the door to a pilot program that has been approved by the Provost’s Office for enhanced UTFs. Unlike regular UTFs, enhanced UTFs will be trained and allowed to help grade papers for Dr. Kleiner’s large general and depth courses. Three years ago, Dr. Kleiner had only one UTF. This fall he will have eight, a clear indication that what he is doing is working. Dr. Kleiner’s use of UTFs adds value to him, his students, and his UTFs.

When looking at Dr. Kleiner’s performance both in and out of the classroom, experiences with UTFs are a part of what his students will take away. For Dr. Kleiner, defining success ties beautifully back to what Aristotle once said, “All philosophy begins in wonder.” As Dr. Kleiner teaches his students philosophy and pushes them to find the added value provided in their general education, he inspires wonder within his students. As he says, “I think when students come here they think they want just a vocational education, but I think that in their heart of hearts they want something that I call Hogwarts moments. They want college to be something more than just job certifications; they want it to be something cool and meaningful and transformative.” The cultivation of wonder in Dr. Kleiner’s classes has the transformative power to do all of those things for students.

 

By Sharon Lyman