April 25, 2010 - 3:13 PM
There's been a debate growing on campus around the "phasing out" of Professor Ken DeBevoise's contract as a political science professor at the University of Oregon. DeBevoise has been at the UO since 1996, and before that got his Ph.D in history from the UO. However, DeBevoise is a non-tenured professor nor is he on tenure track. With recent shifting leadership within the Political Science Department and allegedly behind-the-scenes disagreements with the Department, Ken DeBevoise's position is being "phased out" after the next year. I have been keeping tabs on the debate in the Oregon Daily Emerald and other publications (like The Oregonian), but reluctant to engage with the debate. I am writing my thesis on improving dialogue in University classes, and from all accounts from friends that have taken the class, Ken's class has some of the strongest discussions on campus. For the longest time I resisted meeting with Ken or observing his class because I didn't want to do it for the wrong reasons (i.e. wrapped up in the politics rather than the dialogue). However, an Oregonian article this last week touched on some themes that are absolutely inseparable from my thesis, so I emailed Ken on Monday morning about setting up a meeting.
With his busy class schedule this term (he's teaching two classes) and the outside stresses of possibly losing his job and the media constantly after him, I half expected to not hear back from him. Then I received an email early Monday afternoon from Ken recommending that I come sit in on a class. It was then that I knew this guy must be something special. I expressed my gratitude, and let him know that I'd come into his Israel/Palestine conflict class Tuesday afternoon.
I made my way over to McKenzie Hall on the afternoon of class, and settled down at a side table outside the discussion circle. Ken came into the room a couple minutes before class clad in a Marlboro jacket, blue jeans, and Converse. He immediately sought me out to ask my name, inquired about my project, and offered to set up a meeting with students from the class to ask their opinions on class discussion. For a man with a reputation of being somewhat of a stickler with extremely high expectations, I felt extremely welcome in the class.
Ken ran the class as normal, giving a short quiz on the day's readings (he assigns 15-20 books each 10 week term). He doesn't assign exams or papers, just quizzes to hold students accountable. After the quiz, he began the discussion with various questions students wrote on the board. He challenged the questions like a lawyer, picking out assumptions and opinions and made students support and refute the language-a good exercise in teaching argumentation.
The class was lively, engaged, and extremely passionate about the readings. There were several occasions when the class devolved into a bull session with the entire class shouting over each other because the debate got so heated. Ken would smile and then slowly restore order by recounting the differing viewpoints on the table. The class ended at 5:20, but the majority of the class remained until 5:50 when another class was anxiously waiting to takeover the room. It clearly spoke to individual's passion for the material and the class.
In conclusion, I took away a couple important lessons from the class. First, this was some of the best dialogue I've seen at the UO. Ken weaved in important lessons in argumentation into the debate while promoting an environment where differing opinions were debated in an fair environment backed by well informed understanding of the issues. Finally, I learned that Ken DeBevoise needs to stay at the University of Oregon. His commitment to undergraduate teaching is remarkable. There's clearly a reason ten students in the class wore "Save Ken" shirts, and the two hours I got to spend with them quickly made me feel part of a strong friendship and intellectual circle. Students from the class invited me to happy hour, and we proceeded to discuss my thesis and Afghanistan's future over Ninkasi microbrews at Rennie's. The Keep Ken Coalition, made up of students, alumni, and professionals, continues to fight for the University and the Political Science Department to keep Ken DeBevoise. The Political Science Department seems unwilling to budge, but the University administration appears to be sympathetic (students brought Senior Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Russ Tomlin to tears with their testimony). I've been critical of the University's priorities before, and this situation is again reaffirming my displeasure with the UO's commitment to academics. However, it looks like there may be a shimmer of hope as long as Ken's teaching at the UO. Hopefully it's for a long while.
For more info on the issue, check out the following site: http://keepkencoalition.org/default.aspx