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My discovery of “the Gutenberg Method”


          Most instructors today are aware of the teaching procedure so engagingly presented by Morrison: replacing the ridiculous conventional organic chemistry lecture by a discussion and problem session on a specific text section. Students can pre-study, or at least become familiar with, the material to be covered in each class session (if, as I strongly emphasize now and later, they have the professor’s personal notes for each chapter to guide them).

          Thus, the following naively personal account of my developing a ‘Gutenberg Method’ might appear of little value.  Indeed, it is not important in that it doesn’t describe any new steps.  However, it is unique and important in presenting the ways in which a new psychological relationship can develop between instructors and students.  This absolutely vital component has been ignored in all the discussions of the procedures involved in ‘Gutenberg’ that I have seen.

          I would urge anyone who uses or is considering a ‘Gutenberg’ variation, and already knows its steps or procedures, to scroll down rapidly to the indented paragraphs below (headed by “Success with the Gutenberg Method”).  They describe the essential aspects of what I found to be a remarkably rewarding learning experience for students and for me, as their professor.

The beginning, from failure 

          As a youngster, I was shy — never able to talk in front of a group, even a relatively friendly bunch of half a dozen kids in a school or elsewhere. Even through graduate school in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1940-42, the only public speaking experience I had was in the informal seminars about research progress before supportive friends in M. S. Kharasch’s group.  (Graduate seminars at most institutions for 60 years have been far more confrontational.  I wish I had such rugged training at that time in my life!) 

          Therefore, my first lectures in organic chemistry to 250 students at UCLA in January 1948 were terrifying experiences.  Six years after leaving the academic world at the University of Chicago and with military service in WWII plus industrial chemical research and development blurring my focus, I was not truly sharp and in-depth in my subject.  Furthermore, not only uncomfortable but unusually unskilled in public speaking, I became literally soaking wet with nervous sweat during each of the lectures in the first week.  Also, in trying to appear a pro and be free of reading my notes during those initial lectures, I made a few mistakes.  Of course, I had to report my goofs to the class the next day.  There couldn’t be any of my errors in students’ notes.  But this was not the way to start a successful teaching career.  I couldn’t be perfect, but I was not even mediocre.  The problem of survival led me to a solution that made the rest of my life unusual because it resulted in the “Gutenberg Method” of teaching.

          I discovered that the different-looking older student up in the back row of those 250 sophomores was a grad in chemistry who was taking complete notes — including the errors — of my organic lectures.  He was paid for bringing them to “Phi Bete”, a very profitable company that sold mimeographed (this was 1948) notes of many courses the late afternoon of a morning lecture. Some time toward the end of that awful first week, I caught up with him and offered to go over his notes rapidly after the lecture, improve them where he hadn’t done too well, and correct any errors on my part.  He agreed and I told students that any slips that I might make would be found to be corrected in the Phi Bete notes.

          Then, I had my revelation.  The lecture system was crazy for teaching organic chemistry.  What are professors doing in a lecture?  They’re outlining and explaining the important points (and wasting time mentioning even obvious points) of the text on the blackboard.  But why?  Gutenberg invented movable type.  That made printed textbooks available 500 years ago — even now in chemistry rather than alchemy!  Students don’t read them?  Of course not, if the whole course is dependent on what the prof puts on a blackboard!  Students can’t pick out the most important ideas and facts from a 500-page text (in 1948, or thousand-page now) by themselves.  They’re beginners.  But why not give them something a bit better than the “Phi Bete” notes on the day or the week before the class, not really an outline of the text but more of a guide to what’s important and what’s not in each day’s text assignment. Then the students could read a day’s assignment and know what to look out for as the key points, realizing that the professor is not going to outline it on the board.  Instead, she or he will explain in detail a few complex things in the assigned pages, answer any questions about them, and show how to conquer problems like those in the text, always open to questions and for back and forth with students. 

          Students would realize that they’re going to have to know something about the material of the day or they’ll be lost in what’s going on. The lecture can change to be often a discussion, a genuine relaxed question and answer session if there are 50 or fewer students.  At least, even with 250 students, only the most important or troublesome sections of the text could be what the professor would explain, simplify, amplify throughout the whole class period.  Certainly, there would still be time for questions from some students even in such a large group. And there would be no time wasted in board-writing outlines or spending even seconds on easily read and understood material. 

          Of course, I could neither develop notes for the whole course in advance nor require students to buy “Phi Bete” notes at UCLA that semester.  But on the first day of classes at Occidental College for summer school in 1948, I began the “Gutenberg Method”.  I gave out a “notesheet” for the next two days.  Instead of being a complete outline, its intent was to show and explain some facet that was especially important (particularly if it was a “sleeper” and easily skipped by a naïve student, or the opposite, a non-essential text feature that looked vital but was not), to explain a bit about the most complex new material, to state what should just be scanned and not studied, and to point out trivia and tables that deserved only a minute of a summary-look..  Everything that was not included on the notesheet was assumed to be of average importance: to be read and then studied, and the problems in each particular section solved.  (I urged that, after pre-reading and study, students should get together in small groups, preferably with a portable blackboard to talk out points that they didn’t understand.  I didn’t realize in 1948 that, at that time or later, this was standard practice among students in most law and medical schools.)

          Then, the class on the next day changed to being a completely different experience than “the lecture”.  Its goal was “beating the text” by students — individually and as a team — with my role that of the coach for their career, rather than as a lord high professor with a chalk conch shell up in front of ignorant natives.  I would start the assignment of the day by asking for questions concerning the first page(s).  If there were none and if the material was not complex, we went on to the next pages. Discussion was encouraged, but it was never a matter of questions from me to solicit answers from students. There are patches in texts, both big and small, that are incomprehensible to students.  A young professor must quickly learn of them from class reactions.   Classes differ.   (The notesheets should be carefully revisited each year and revised to match new findings re student reactions.)   When I knew that students probably were not aware of pitfalls in a section, such as what might appear somewhat obvious but could come back as a ‘twist’ in an exam setting, I especially warned the class what to watch for.  

          A major psychological discovery in the initial year was finding that it was best not to give out notesheets for a longer period than the coming week. Otherwise, the bulk of a month (or worse, the dozens of pages for a whole semester – that I never tried) would seem to the beginning student like an added burden in a new and difficult course rather than an unusual personal aid by ‘the coach’.  In contrast, the timing of looking forward only to the next week or chapter gave the ‘handout’ a sense of immediacy and personal support by the prof rather than a forbidding additional load.

          (My 2012 view is that all notesheets or handouts or communications from the prof must not be 'computer-appearing'; i.e., hand-drawn formulas and equations are essential in all such handouts to reinforce visually the personal involvement of the 'career coach'.)

          The results?  The attitudes of the students in class, the resulting informal atmosphere in the lecture room, were totally different than most of their classes and my UCLA experience.  Of course, every student did not keep up every day.  They had time-variable specific demands and exams from other courses and responsibilities.  But all students soon realized that if they didn’t catch up as soon as possible, they would be lost in future days.  You can’t skip football practice for a week and think you’re going to be retained on a team!  Conquering the material was our mutual goal, and I was there only as their personal coach to help them do it best so their future success could be assured.  They knew the four exams (with the lowest grade to be discarded) were going to be hard and not repetitions of any of the previous year.  I slowly learned that I could say “I don’t know” to a student on occasion;  “Let’s go check that out in the library after class and report back tomorrow.”  That was a significant finding.  It reinforced student awareness not just of my fallibility but of my intent to be on their side against the complexities of organic chem.

          In 1959 ‘my’ Gutenberg Method rose to a higher level of success because of the publication of “Morrison and Boyd”, the text of Robert T. Morrison and Robert N. Boyd that “changed the pedagogy of organic chemistry”. Morrison and I had been friends in grad school at Chicago, but in the spring of 1959 when his text was published, no one could know the lasting impact it would have.  With a plain cover, hundreds more pages than two new and four old competitors (due to cheap non-glossy, non-color pages), M&B looked like a sure loser — until I read the first chapter and compared it with two other new texts, e.g. Cram and Hammond.  Texts prior to M&B, and including C&H were sources of information.  M&B had the information (plus a vital blending of modern theory with old reactions, radically new to organic texts in the 1950s) and, most important, – totally different than predecessors -- on every page they were talking with students, not at them.  M&B used what I call “we language”:  “Let us look…”, “When we consider…”, “if we make…”, “What is so special…?”  and, for the first time in organic texts, inserted problems in the text after a section.  Finally, the problems at the end of each chapter were unusually extensive and were confidence-building because they started with easy challenges but built toward thought-provoking problems often involving real-life research data.  

          Of course, all organic texts fit this pattern today, but M&B ‘actualized’ my Gutenberg Method in 1959.  My goal of working successfully with students was reached because students really were able to read and study their text as though master teachers were talking with them.  They were.

          A final and extremely important example of the worth of the Gutenberg Method was that my classes were always “on the mark” so far as the plan of pages/chapter per class period, never more than half a period behind the daily schedule of content, and that not too often. To have to hurry to “cover” the last chapter or two of the text at the end of the year was never the case — unlike many horror stories of the kind I’ve heard about professors using the standard lecture system. (Omitting essential chapters in a text due to a professor being unable to adhere to a schedule is malfeasance and unacceptable professional performance, in my opinion.)

Success with the Gutenberg Method

          All of the foregoing (and the following non-indented paragraphs) constitute an adventure of discovery whose success astonished me, but this was long ago — beginning in 1948 and rapidly reaching a superb asymptote after M&B’s publication in 1959-60!  Thus, modern instructors who have glanced at this history of discovering the Gutenberg Method may have yawned and, unfortunately, stopped reading before the vital indented paragraphs to come.

          Professors may believe that they know all about this ‘routine’:  it’s now old stuff to urge students to read a text before the class so that class time can be more participative rather than nonsensical passive note-ta-king in an unjustifiable chemistry “lecture”.  But  what I am trying to communicate lies behind those procedural details of a “Gutenberg Method”.  Those details are required but no matter how well organized, they’re like a Ferrari without a powerful engine. 

          The essence of the Gutenberg Method that can transform a class lies in the psychological change in professor and student to the roles of coach and student-who-wants-success.  The procedures are just the framework.  They are trivial, useless, a waste of time without a commitment by instructors to change their attitudes to create a different relationship with students than they themselves suffered as undergraduates under authoritative savants (or marginal human beings with fast-moving chalk and PowerPoint).  In my opinion, the instructor must communicate this and the advantages of their changed roles for the student to the students from the first minutes of contact with members of a new class.

    (The problem of the student in a course that is ‘required but not desired’ may be greater today than in my experience.  Perhaps that is not because there are proportionately more such students but rather because rebellion per se is more the norm.  Long retired, I cannot speak from experience now, of course.  However, can unmotivated students not be made aware of how much easier future courses in any desired field will be after conquering the present required chemistry course?  (My graduates who went on to med school uniformly reported, when they dropped in later, that their classmates in biochem almost all struggled, while their success in learning how to study in organic chem made biochem a piece of cake.)  Only a psychological change in the instructor, plus extra hours of labor in finding/developing optimal talking points to aid each student, can prove to doubting students how a course is worth their best effort.  It is additional labor to speak with them individually, personally.  But if they sense the sincerity of such interest in helping them in their future, I predict a major change in enough students to tip the balance in the whole class toward a genuine coach-to-team-member relationship.)

    The following paragraph may seem obsolete in today’s world where ‘course evaluations’ are routine and routinely misused by students to complain at length rather than to cooperate, where ‘online’ keys to exams and easily-graded multiple choice exams are the norm.  (And where online registration for a course is routine, whereas ‘in my day’ we met and registered students ourselves.  If teaching today, I would insist that each enrollee in organic come to my office so I could meet him/her and for each to get the notesheet for the first week.  Thereby, just as in years past, we could hit the ground running and acquainted with each other.)  However, again below, I bold-type the difference between the professor-student cooperation in the Gutenberg Method as I developed it (and others undoubtedly have) versus impersonal actions and computer sites used as part of a pre-study, non-lecture routine.

    It is not the same to give students a thick pack of pre-study notes — that have the same printed perfection of text supplements — rather than something looking more personal, with hand-drawn formulas, giving the sense of the prof being behind every word of the writing.  It is not the same for students to see answers to an hour exam on a computer screen alone in a dorm room as to be given a copy of those answers, hand-written on a sheet of paper and delivered by the professor-coach as they leave the exam room.  It is not the same to have students’ grades after an exam rapidly put on a course page in the university net as to have a complex exam returned personally by the professor to students at the next day of a class meeting — with comments as to how they could have done better on an imperfect answer. It is not the same for students in the organic lab to have to go to the stockroom or a phys chem lab for small tools or unusual brushes rather than having the organic lab the best equipped for any student’s experimental needs.  It is not the same for a prof to ask sincerely for improvements in a course on which the professor and student have worked together for a year as it is for students to fill out ‘Evaluation Forms’ for a course in which they have opposed one another for a year.

    Either total failure of the Gutenberg Method – or, at best, marginally better results than from a standard lecture format – are assured if a professor gives ‘start of each day’ quizzes or requires students to make (and submit!) notes so that the prof can be sure that the student did the required pre-study of the topic of the day!

     What I discovered as “the Gutenberg Method”, via procedures and attitudes described in the preceding paragraphs, is maximally successful only if it is truly, and if it is sensed by the student to be, part of a totally cooperative endeavor to conquer the subject matter: to ‘beat the book’…with coach and student working together.  

          I was the first professor in any department of Occidental College to request anonymous comments from students at the end of each year about improving one’s courses.  For many years, along with their comments that helped make the class better, responses included the refrain “This was a hard class, but it was also the best I have ever had in science…”   Occasionally there was a substitute: “…in any subject”.  (The reason may well have been that they gained the sense of how much the requirement for their own individual pre-study contributed to their growth in intellectual independence.) 

          There were many unexpected results from my teaching that used the Gutenberg Method.  In 1961 I was chosen by a faculty committee as the first scientist to be named the Occidental Faculty Award Lecturer, based on superior teaching and publications in professional journals.  However, in 1967 the senior class moved toward establishing their own Award.  This was opposed by the administration because it would seem to dilute the importance of the Faculty Award and, as a previous awardee, I was on the committee that agreed with the president.

          One afternoon in my busy and noisy organic chem laboratory class, three students came to see me to talk about the new senior award and so I took them to an adjacent quiet lab that wasn’t in use to present my reasons for it not to be implemented.  Before I was able to make an initial statement, the spokesperson said, “We’re here to tell you that the senior class has just finished voting to give you the new Award for Outstanding Teaching”.  Oh, how I wish that videocams had been invented and that there was one in that lab….. to catch a confused but lightning-fast reversal from stating why the president and our committee were right to my stammering some kind of overwhelmed thanks. 

          The result of the vote was astonishing to me.  My classes didn’t average more than thirty students so that I certainly couldn’t be considered a popular lecturer, whereas there were a number of brilliant and charismatic lecturers with large to very large classes on the campus.  (Thirty years after that Award, at a reunion of Occidental alumni, one of those gifted and very popular profs told me that he had been the runner-up for the initial Award.  I had never heard that any professor was privy to such details of the outcome of the secret vote.  An important figure on campus, he hadn’t known me well when the Award was announced, so he asked a colleague, “Who is this Lambert?  Is he really that good?”  And he was kind enough in 1997 to tell me that the 1967 response was “He’s very good.”)

          I really was not.  It was the Gutenberg Method that made me appear so.  It’s an unusual situation for students to have an academic professor who is a personal career coach and whose obvious goal in every class session is to help them conquer the text’s material and move their lives forward.  Every school day for 33 years, I couldn’t wait until I got to Oxy to work with students in the class because it was just as much fun as the constant new problems in the research lab.  That’s the difference between lecturing and “the Method”.  I don’t think teaching can be more rewarding than that. 


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