Thomas Pavel, Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures and the CollegeBy Josh Schonwald
It happened in Vienna in the fall of 2006. Although Thomas Pavel had taught dozens of classes and hundreds of students in Europe, Canada and the United States during his more than 30-year academic career, it was in Vienna that he had, “the best teaching experience of my life.”
Pavel, the Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures, Comparative Literature, Social Thought and the College, was teaching the second leg of the College’s European Civilization sequence, a class that spanned the Renaissance and the Reformation to the end of the 18th Century.
Students enrolled in the course take a single, intensive class for three weeks, and Pavel’s class met for two hours every day. “The students are yours, alone. They don’t have to think about anything else,” he said. “The course had them captive, if I can say so. They had to read, they had to prepare.”
And, he added, “The class also held me captive.” Pavel had traveled to Vienna without his family to teach that Fall Quarter. “I had no other distractions.” And then there was the magical, fascinating classroom they found themselves immersed in.
Pavel and his students devoured the city. They took field trips almost every day. They visited the Museum of Art History, the Museum of the City of Vienna and the War Museum.
Certain site visits were required, but others simply were available to them. In the evenings, Pavel often would visit Vienna’s churches to listen to Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. “It’s one of the things that makes Vienna so wonderful. There’s so much music. It got addictive,” Pavel said of the experience. “I would invite students to come with me after class, in the evenings, on the weekends. I was going to do these things anyway. If they wanted to come, that was fine.”
The result of this daily interaction was an unprecedented level of closeness with his students. It was more than just fun; Pavel could see the impact of the course on the students, their absorption and reflection on the ideas discussed.
Pavel had adopted a teaching method of a former colleague, having students write a brief response to the reading they had completed for class, which he collected before any class discussion began. For the past decade, this routine preparation involved for him weaving students’ responses into his own outline. “The students are more comfortable. They’re encouraged when they hear their thoughts referenced by the instructor.”
In Vienna, he took that method a step further. “I couldn’t wait for class to respond to their ideas,” he said. Perhaps it was the intensity, the closeness of the experience, the shared live experience in Vienna. “I just couldn’t passively receive their ideas. So I responded immediately to them, via e-mail.”
It fostered a unique dialogue with the students, further enhancing their learning experience. Pavel found the class discussion, which focused heavily on the German Enlightenment, benefited from this dialogue.
“They loved Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, a play about religious and political freedom,” he recalled. “Yet, they were unconvinced by Werther, the central character in Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
“They ridiculed him,” recalled Pavel, laughing at their reaction to Werther, whose unrequited infatuation led him to suicide. This unflinching discussion of Werther influenced Pavel’s own thinking about the lonely, poetic, love-struck soul.
Pavel’s Vienna experience prompted him to change his teaching technique.
He now responds to his students’ ideas before class in an effort to cultivate a dialogue. While some classes, because of their size, make the practice time-consuming, Pavel admits it is worth it. “They are happier students. They feel motivated to talk and participate.”
Pavel said one of the chief reasons he enjoys teaching undergraduates is because they have not yet been deeply immersed in theoretical approaches. “They approach the text with an innocent eye.”
As Pavel has aged, his interests have moved away from theory as he now seeks innocence in his own reading. His most recent work, in French, is titled, How To Listen to Literature.
“I want to let the work speak itself, to listen to it,” he said, “And this is what I tried to do with my students in Vienna.”