Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1


A Conversation with Matthew Crenson '63

A New Kind of Pre-Med

Freshman Book Discussion Yields Rich Insights

[Tech Tools] Museum World Tour 2007

[Tech Tools] A Melding of the Muses

[Classroom Encounters] Mass Media's Messages

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A Conversation with Matthew Crenson ’63

Matthew CrensonDuring his 38 years on the political science faculty at Johns Hopkins, professor Matthew Crenson '63 strived to remain fresh and relevant in his teaching by continually coming up with new courses, many of them based in the learning laboratory of urban Baltimore.

Last spring, the expert on urban politics was honored with an Excellence in Teaching Award, the fifth teaching award in his career at Hopkins.

The honor came as a fitting cap to a distinguished career: Over the summer, the popular professor threw out his reams of teaching notes—enough to blanket a football field—to head into retirement.

Arts and Sciences contributing writer Greg Rienzi talked with Crenson on the eve of his retirement about his four decades of teaching, the evolution of students, and his beloved Baltimore.

Have students changed much in your 38 years here?

They have. They are not as politically active as they were when I started teaching here, which was during the tail end of the Vietnam War. The draft was still in effect.

I remember in the weeks after Kent State and the bombing of Cambodia, classes were cancelled and hundreds of students, and me, poured out into Charles Street and blocked the traffic and held a rally. I don't think that would happen today.

I think the Internet and television have really changed them, too. You have to work to make them go beyond the surface of assigned readings, to become a really attentive reader. One of the mechanisms I use is to have them write a short paper on the assigned readings. You read in an entirely different way when you think about yourself as a writer, not just a reader.

In 1969, when I came here, [students] didn't know about mouse clicking and surfing the 'Net. They were not swamped by information as the students today are. I think they are a little dazed actually by it all. [The information] has numbed them a bit.

How do you break through this numbness?

I really have to work at the beginning of a class, especially, to capture their attention. I do this by giving them an issue and saying. "Isn't this outrageous, how can anybody say something like this?" Or, "look at this contradiction." I start with an issue that will wake them up.

I'd say that the biggest threat to undergraduate education, actually, is WiFi, because they all bring their laptops to class and they sit there clicking away and pretend to be taking notes. But I know what they are doing-they are playing games or surfing the 'Net.

What do you do about that?

There were four or five guys in one class doing this, so I went up to them. I said: "You guys have been tapping away at your laptops for the past five or 10 minutes, but I haven't said anything yet that is worth writing down (laughs). So, close the laptops and take out your pens."

You are legendary among students for your heavy reading load...

Yes, I probably give them 150 pages a week.

What's the secret for keeping them motivated?

I organize the lectures around the readings. They know that if they don't quite get the readings then I am going to explain and interpret it for them in class. But if they don't do the reading, it's all going to sound like gibberish. I'm surprised at how well most of them keep up with it.

How did you prep for class?

By going into the classroom way over prepared. I've always done that. I write down everything that I am going to say, except the jokes; they have to be more spontaneous.

I don't do it because I'm going to use my notes, but writing it all down accomplishes two things for me. It's a way to think through what I'm going to say, to test the argument that I'm going to make. I also want to do it for the sake of clarity, figure out exactly how I'm going to present the issue.

Although I've been doing this for 40 years, I've never gotten used to public speaking. I always get a little nervous, especially on the first day. I think in part that is a good thing, because you have to be a little anxious to be sharp.

You have written about Baltimore and based courses on the city. Why?

As a political scientist, I have an advantage specializing in urban politics and teaching in a city. People who teach international relations and comparative politics can't introduce their students directly to the subjects that they teach, but I can do it here.

I try to do it by bringing people into the class-politicians and public officials-and sending students out to do assignments that expose them to Baltimore. In one of my urban politics courses, instead of giving them a midterm I made them write a paper about what they thought the personality of Baltimore is. I've gotten some of the greatest things that I ever received from that assignment.

You're frequently tapped by the media to provide political commentary on various issues. Did your political opinions find their way into the classroom?

I never made any secret of my own political preferences. I don't stand up and say, "I'm a liberal Democrat," but I'm very candid with them.

The idea that you can teach political science and be completely neutral is just not a possibility. In fact, that is a great way to ruin political science for students. Political scientists become political scientists not because they are objective, but because they have interests and opinions that make politics important to them.

What prompted your decision to retire now?

The reason I'm stopping is because I figured I've done it all.

The disadvantage of writing everything down is the temptation to print out another version of your notes and just walk into the class. I've been able to resist that temptation by either teaching new courses or introducing new material into old courses, but after 38 years I think it's the right time to get out. Pretty soon, for a couple of courses I teach regularly, I won't think of anything else new to say.