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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Meetings With Remarkable Men

The Story of Professor Robert Gurland, Part 2 (see Part 1 here)


I was so excited yet frustrated sitting in that class. Didn't these students know they were with a living legend? Why weren't they hanging on his every word? It costs big money to attend NYU. Why was one student sleeping and another looking at dresses online and messaging on Facebook? Gurland was discussing the nature of evil - man's inhumanity to man. On the chalk board were the names Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Duvalier. What the hell does it take to galvanize students?

I was following his presentation and completing some of his sentences in my mind. I was flying. This was education at its best. The man's ability to communicate is brilliant, with a perfect meld of theater, anecdotes insight and passion, making the content accessible and relevant. No wonder he is a superstar educator with the highest student ratings, a cabinet full of letters (see here) and has been referred to as an icon for educators.
I understand we live in a world of information and sensory overload. However, I would find it extremely disappointing to be a man like Professor Robert Gurland, with all of his accolades, and lose to Facebook. When I expressed my outrage in my second interview in his office, he laughed and said "When I look at those Apples, I know that they're looking at a porn site on the other side."

The man for this job needs a tough skin and a realization that in this world, you often lose to competing interests in the classroom. Who better to weather this storm of our current times than a tough, New York City Bronx-born Jew grounded in reality and who knows how to take a beating?

I had taken a class with Robert Gurland circa 1970. Even at 9 AM, his classes were packed with sizes at one time of as many as 450 students. Historically his classes have been so popular that it became a problem in the Philosophy department - no one has wanted to take other courses. In the late 1990s, a part-time employee who was also an NYU student was raving about a professor. I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was the very same Professor Gurland who was still going strong in his unique style of teaching and making impressions with his indelible stamp. As the result of a recent inquiry, I discovered Gurland was still teaching at 77 years old.

I obtained his phone number and had a brief phone conversation - I was amazed that in spite of the fact that he has had over 25,000 students, he remembered my name and the class I was in - Practical Reasoning. I arranged an interview and to sit in on two of his classes. He was extremely gracious and permitted any manner of recording I wanted. I came armed with cameras, video and voice recorders. I interviewed Professor Robert Gurland twice in his office at 726 Broadway, once before and once after the two classes I attended. These were his last classes of the semester. I recorded both classes on video and 78 minutes of our dialog in his office.

We met in the lobby at 8:30 AM. His office door is open, but Gurland values his privacy and I appreciated the privilege of spending time with him. As we entered his private office, I felt electricity in the air - I had never been with Gurland outside the classroom. The ensuing conversation was charged.

In our conversation, I learned many things I did not know about this superstar of university teaching. We discussed his working class roots, his growing up in the Bronx and attendance at the Bronx School of Science, at the time an experimental school. At one point, Gurland showed me a photo of himself at 20 years old as a professional trumpet player. He recounted the litany of jazz legends he played with, such as Krupa and Dorsey. A small trumpet hangs from his neck. We discussed his personal life briefly. Gurland is married with one son who is a full time professional musician. When younger, Gurland dabbled in photography and won two Eastman contests.

Now a philosophy professor at NYU, Gurland has served as chair of the department. However, I was also surprised to learn that his first educational degrees were in mathematics, eventually culminating in a Ph.D and a tenured professorship of mathematics at Long Island University.

Do I over inflate Gurland's achievements and charisma? Not at all. Gurland has taught at many universities and has won best teacher awards at all of them. He has been awarded NYU's Golden Dozen Teaching Award numerous times and was the youngest person to get the alumni association great teaching award. He holds three MA degrees and two PhDs.

For a man like Robert Gurland, these are but milestones on a road that many others have taken but to a destination few will ever reach. There were a few students who lingered after class to say goodbye and express their appreciation for this great educator.

I am immersed in technology and spend hours online. I recorded Professor Gurland's classes using two video camcorders, a digital voice recorder and professional DSLR camera. But these are only tools. I was not distracted from Gurland's presentation and the special things only a relationship with a human being can bring to our world. I salute him on giving such spirited and impassioned lectures, even to empty classrooms - filled with so many students preoccupied with something or someone else. I am having a hard time this morning deleting those images of dresses and Facebook from my mind ...

9 comments:

Mary P. said...

Amazing man!
I guess exams were over... But no excuse for those students' behavior!

Sarah said...

nice...

jb said...

Anyone who looks like Joe Walsh is good by me...

Thérèse said...

Excellent!

Jack said...

We all multi-task and delude ourselves into thinking that we can do four things at the same time. Really, we neither hear the professor nor really focus on the dress or the porn. Focusing is becoming a lost art.

Leslie said...

Bravo, I'm feeling your passion in this post. Any chance you can add the videos of those classes? I am so eager to hear this fascinating guy again after all these years.

Karen said...

Such a shame that unappreciative students take up space in a class such as this one. I for one know of a young man with a deep dedication to philosophy, who would be truly honoured to attend this class, instead he is trying to make his way here in Canada, money has run out and obtaining the education so important to him is almost our of reach. Just plain sad.

Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I took 4 philosophy classes from Gurland from maybe '93 to '95 while at NYU. Logic (my first, during a summer session, to fulfill a math credit (I was failing Calculus)), Ethics, Ancient Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. The last 3 were full semesters taken during the fall/spring school years. I am a musician, studied music at NYU. What Gurland taught me, other than course work, was HOW TO TEACH (maybe be able to explain an idea or a concept 4 or 5 different ways). His lectures were excellent, and on point, BUT, if anyone really wanted to go a bit deeper.....they should pay hellish attention when he seems to go "off topic." That's where some real gold was mined. And, I would hang out after class just to talk to Gurland about damn near anything. Philosophy, music, his time as a kid playing trumpet, his son, etc. And, I used to get in a hellishly long line to see Gurland during office hours. He always had time for, seemingly, everybody. One of the best teachers I've ever had. His lessons speak to me still to this day.

Anonymous said...

I took many classes with Professor Gurland at NYU- both as an undergraduate and in continuing ed. My favorite class of all time, Philosophy and Literature, remains one of my brightest memories from my years at college. In fact, it took a philosophy professor to open my eyes -a lit major- to the brilliance of William Faulkner. I consider myself really fortunate to have head those experiences, especially the ones involving 20-minute long tangents on topics including baseball, jazz, growing up in NY, family dynamics, West Point, you name it, we heard it. And we listened, for the most part, with rapt attention. He wrote me a letter of recommendation for law school.
I'm glad to hear that he is still as active as always.