Schreck: Would you mind sharing with us some of your teaching approaches? I mean, I notice you were talking about your teacher in college who was very entertaining and I noticed thatís come into your teaching style having been in your class. Can you tell us more about that?
Levis: Well I came in from a state university whose idea of teaching was professor in front of 300 students at a lectern, talking. And I, when I took the job here, I made these elaborate sets of lecture notes. I mean, I had every word down there. And I would stand up there and, you know, I came down fully prepared just to read my lecture notes because thatís what Ió Thatís as I said, I had no teaching experience. And that was sort of the experience, thatís what I thought college teaching was! And it was people like Eleanor Miller and my colleagues in the history department. We in the history department talk a lot about teaching. Weíre almost obsessive about it, we talk so much about it and it really made a difference in my approach so that I, I mean I donít lecture much, do I?
Levis: Because I found out that is not the way to get students engaged. You just see the sort of a blank stares coming across the face as they become mesmerized. And it doesnít engage them and then they, you know, and then you end up with them just regurgitating what you said on the exam. It doesnít really challenge them. So I changed my approach very early on, because I found that it wasnít really very effective. And, you know, we were encouraged.
You know, at that time, when I came here, Rollins did not put a lot of focus on publications. We did a little bit, it was expected. But it was not something that was seen as our main function. Our main function was teaching. And Iíve always thought that we, that that was something that was really important. Because people came here.
Kids went to state universities; they ended up in these huge classes there. The person they had contact with was a TA who really didnít give a damn about them. Because I was a TA for a semester and I didnít give a damn about them. I was much more concerned with getting my course work done, working on my dissertation, you know, those sorts of things. I couldnít care less about the students that came in. I did my obligatory office hours. Nobody showed up, which is good, because I got my work done. And you know, it was just terrible and I saw here that the faculty were really interested in the students and making a difference in their lives. And we did, because you could see people grow in a way at a small school that you couldnít in a big state university.
I mean, I only had one teacher that really knew me well as an undergraduate. And that was just by chance because I was in aó he was the teacher of the chemistry course that I took and I happened to end up in his, what we called, recitation (??) section. So he got to know me and I took him for one other class. And he actually wrote a very nice letter of recommendation for me for graduate school, which I didnít do. I wasnít interested in biology.
But I didnít see my advisor until my senior year in college. I saw the secretary. And I believed her when she said I had to take a Saturday class. She said, ďAll freshmen are supposed to take Saturday classes (laughter).Ē Lie. But I believed it. You know, so that sort of personality just, I knew had not worked for me and I saw the difference here so I, you know. And itís fun. Itís fun to watch students, what they become and how, you know. You get letters. I have a file of letters I have gotten over the years from people whoíve written back and said, you know, Thank you for this, that, and the other thing. And it really makes a big difference. And I would not have gotten that if I had stayed the way I was. I wouldíve been just God awfully boring (laughter).
Schreck: What was your first impression of the college, the campus, the students?
Levis: Well the campus was a sleepy little place with lots of Spanish moss. I was in the French House annex, which doesnít stand anymore. Itís where, whatís the dorm is it, it used to be called Cloverleaf.
Schreck: No, itísó
Zhang: It was Cloverleaf and then it became Elizabeth Hall.
Levis: No, Elizabeth Hall was different. Elizabeth Hall was still there. Itís the one that, itís not McKean. Whatís the one thatís rightó?
Levis: Ward, yeah. Yeah. It used to be called Cloverleaf. Well anyway, there was, the French House, it was a shack. There were four of us in there. Anotheró The person I got very close to, she just died a couple of years ago, itís really a shame, but her name was Elinor (??) Miller and she taught French, and we just had a delightful time down there in sort of in exile. By, it was just by the French house. There were partitions, but they didnít go all the way up to the ceiling. And there were window air conditioners so it was just miserable when I first got here. There was one secretary for the entire, it was calledó no two secretaries for faculty services for all the faculty. So we had to carry our stuff all the way over to a little building in the grove with trees, which is now where the field house is. Iím trying to remember her name. Benfield (??). What was her first name? Ah! I canít remember. Anyway (laughter). See me in a moment. So it was, you knowó We had phones. Apparently, we were the first group to get, to actually have phones in our office. Usually there was just sort of a central phone one had to go to. The mail was in the, what is now the Rice Bookstore. I was across from all this, and the dining hall. Or not the dining, the student, the student center. Which is actually very nice because it was close to where I was and we would go over there. And Iím sure Jack Lane has waxed eloquent about how wonderful it was in the old days when the post office was right there with the food services in the student center, and weíd get our mail and sit around and talk and stuff like that.
So I, you know, I really had some interesting new colleagues. Elinor (??) was fantastic. She was an inspiration to me. I mean, I knew nothing about teaching. I had never done any teaching. I had, one semester, I had been a TA [teaching assistant], but that was it. I conned my father and my father paid for everything, because he was just anxious for me to get an education so I could get out and get a job. And so I didnít, you know, I didnít go on scholarships or anything so I went straight through except this one semester. And so that was the only teaching experience I had. And I really learned an awful lot from her about how to teach. And team-taught with her not my first year but my second year. And there were just some really interesting characters on the faculty.
Schreck: Thereís a feature in the Olin Info newsletter, ďBooks That Made a DifferenceĒ. Are there any books that influenced your life particularly?
I think my interest in religious history was sparked by Roman
book, Here I Stand; that would be one.
Of the history books Iíve read, that probably had a
impact on the things I was interested in than anything else.
I think the Tower Treasure was very important to me. Donít know what it is? Itís one of the Hardy Boys mysteries; it was the first one I read. And it really got me reading. And I inundated my grandchildren with the Harry Potter books and other books because, and actually itís gotten the eldest one to read a lot. And itís really made a difference. I mean, just the fact that I became a reader. I guess I had an influence because my mother was a reader. My mother just read a book, you know, she read a book a day practically. She just devoured them and I think that had a lot to do withó My father didnít read anything but newspapers and books that attacked Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But other than that, yeah. He didnít read and my brothers, neither of my brothers read. Theyíre both engineers and they donít have a book and they donít read. And I think I just got intrigued. And another book that my aunt and uncle gave me that I reread recently, itís very interesting. Stuff like that. So I think just the fact of reading had a tremendous impact on the way I am. You know, I read, Iíll have five books going at the same time and itís just wonderful, stuff like that. And itís just wonderful. But as far, you know, and thereís, I mean, thereís been other things along the way that have had an impact, but I think books are just really important to me. Oh my God, this is interesting stuff. Itís just fascinating. The whole relationship between politics and theology and the role the church has played in our society and so forth. Itís just really fascinating.
Levis Talks About Some Memorable Classroom Experiences
Levis: The second year, we moved out of the French House annex for the new faculty; we moved into what stood here, the Knowles building, because the scientists, they had moved into Bush and we got their rejects, but it was actually a very nice building. It was really, you know, it had some amenities to it whichó It has a big central hall and people would gather there after classes because all the classrooms were off that center hall and then the offices were sort of behind the staircases that led upstairs. The problem was the psychology department was upstairs and they had rats. And one time, I was teaching a class in 101, which had this big conference table. And we looked up and there was stuff dripping down. They had washed out the rat cages by just hosing them, and the effluent was coming down through the ceiling and landing on top of the table, it was disgusting. So that was the downside of the building. But the other part of the building was reallyó In fact, is that it, in the picture over there?
Levis: No? Oh okay. It was a really, it was a nice building because there was sort of a communal area right there that people could meet. I remember there was kid named Bobby Davis, who was actually, taught for us once he graduated, who during the Falkland Wars set up a table. I still have his brochure. And had a picture of me, a drawing of me looking like Kitchner (??). ďHis majestyís government wants you to fight in the Falklands,Ē which, to try to, to get bibs a joke because theyó But, yeah. Itís sort of people weíve had that had good sense of humor.
There was another student named Dorris Jenkins (??) who, theyó I, in some of my upper division classes, I require students to cite bibliography in their essays, you know? So and so says such and such, a historian says such and such. So she had, they all made up a name of the historian. And Horace Vandergrit (??) or something like that. And they all cited this guy in their final examination, and they all cited him the same way. This was a conspiracy that theyíd done this. And I was going bonkers! I said, ďWhat? Who is this! I should know this guy!Ē (Laughter) I mean, they were alló They almost had me convinced until I realized, Oh this is a hoax. So, students are a lot more serious now. They donít have as much of a sense of humor sometimes. They are sometimes so credential driven that sort of the joy of learning just for the sake of learning is not always there.
Schreck: So you were here during the tumultuous sixties and seventies?
you ever encounter any particular uprisings, any
conflicts or events in particular?
had, well actually, we had a teach-in on the Vietnam War.
hung an American flag upside down on the fence around the
and the city of Winter Park was threatening to have them
things like that. And we had a teach-in and I talked and I
two of my fraternity brothers, who were killed there. And
how, what an
impact it had had on me. Because I was very conservative
when I, well I
came from a very staunch Republican household. I was a
I was a member of the Young American for Freedom. I mean I
card-carrying right wing conservative. And the war really
had an impact
and thereís other things that were involved as well, but I, and I
really sort of changed. In fact, my father once told my
that he paid to send me to college for eight years and I turned
be a communist (laughter). I was voting; I became a
But that, you know, that was a very exciting time because there wasnít a lot of students who were involved. A lot of students sort of scoffed. But there was a small group of very dedicated politically, almost radical. One young woman wore a red fist on the back of her graduation gown. Another had things, messages on top of their caps and gowns, the graduates. So that was in I think í70, 1970. I donít remember when it was, but it wasó I was involved inó I belonged to an organization known as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. And I was involved in talking to students about conscientious objector status and stuff like that, to try to help them deal with the draft. My father hired a lawyer. But there are other ways that it can be done. So yeah, it was, that was the exciting time. I look back on those times very fondly always.