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Wit, dedication, and chalk dust
If you think you could fall asleep in one of Ron Seyb’s classes, you might practice at a pro play-off game. The fast-talking associate professor of government—who alternately stands in place with arms folded and paces in sneakers from one side of the classroom to another—projects his voice as if coaching a team spread out over a large playing field, and as if there are only a few seconds left in the game. His enthusiasm is borne in the scuffs of chalk dust on his shirt and pants.
Seyb’s protégés appear mesmerized to the point of paralysis, but prove otherwise when they collectively twist around in their seats to see his chalkboard notes (there is nary an inch of blank space on the boards, which cover two walls of the room). Every now and then Seyb peppers his lectures with some relevant humor, which elicits smiles and chortles.
Seyb, who’s taught contemporary American politics (including “The United States Presidency,” “The Psychology of Politics,” and “The Virtual Republic”) at Skidmore since 1988, was the 2005 recipient of the college’s Ralph A. Ciancio Award for Excellence in Teaching.
He is a proponent of lectures—which he delivers in large part “to disabuse students of their pre- and misconceptions about American politics”—but he animates them with “video clips, digressions, and questions designed as much to ensure that my charges are sensate as to provoke discussion.” If some students stay mum throughout the class, he doesn’t hold it against them. “Experience has taught me that there is not always a strong correlation between student speaking and student engagement,” he says.
“I have seen Ron work his magic in the classroom, and it is remarkable what he can accomplish in fifty-five minutes,” says government department chair Beau Breslin. He refers to Seyb as a “model instructor” whose classes are rigorous yet collegial and egalitarian (“he walks up and down the rows while teaching, giving students the sense that he is learning alongside them”). He “exhorts them to think more subtly and deeply about political issues. By the end of class Ron himself is winded, and his students are overwhelmed—in a good way.”
Seyb accepted his Ciancio nomination with considerable hats-offs to his colleagues, saying he was honored, yes, but also very much aware that Skidmore is “infested with outstanding teachers.” He claims to have “borrowed” many of their proven teaching techniques. (“I do not think I am even the best teacher in my household,” he divulges. “My wife, [associate professor of Spanish] Grace Burton, is the most talented, thoughtful, and creative teacher I know.”)
Breslin, though, commends Seyb for the way he’s educated junior faculty (including Breslin himself) over the years—on how to “overcome the many pitfalls that can inevitably shake the confidence” of a new professor, as well as what “strategies and tactics can improve classroom performance. No one has influenced my teaching more than Ron.” Which just goes to show that whatever Seyb has “borrowed” he passes along for others to do the same. —MTS
RON SEYB, NUTSHELLED
Mike Levine ’07: There’s a certain comfort in being in one of his classes. The bridge between him and his students is miraculously short—he has a great understanding of popular culture.
Emily Martin ’06: As a freshman, I was prepared to meet horribly evil professors. But in Ron’s class, I found myself laughing. I loved his ability to keep the class entertained.
Kenny Olmstead ’06: His lectures are engaging even when the material is less so (e.g., the federalist papers). His excitement about what he’s teaching is contagious—which is why going to class never feels like a chore.
Julianna Koch ’06: What stands out is his ability to demand a lot from students without intimidation, in a way that you aren’t afraid to ask for help.