Students learn in many different ways. At a men’s college, we understand the value of men’s particular educational needs.
Dr. Hugh O. “Trey” Thurman is certainly unique. But first of all, don’t call him “Dr. Thurman.”
“I don’t like hierarchy in any form. I don’t like to be called ‘Dr. Thurman.’ I tell my students that if you can’t get over that, if you can’t get over calling me ‘Trey’—because some people can’t— it’s okay. ‘Dr. Thurman’ will work. I’m not going to respond to you as quickly, though. Eventually all of them wind up calling me ‘Trey.’”
The associate professor of physics and astronomy was recognized at Commencement this year with the Cabell Award for his “outstanding contribution to the classroom for the education of Christian young men.”
Trey works hard to create an open, engaging classroom environment. In addition to telling his students to call him by his first name, Trey is frank with his students, especially regarding what he expects from them.
“I make it clear that if I am covering something, and you don’t understand what I’m doing, you’ve got to stop me. I don’t have ESP. I tell them to stop me in the middle of anything we are doing, and I will try to figure out where it is that I lost you. That means that my classroom is pretty active between the students and myself. Students realize that when they show up, it’s not going to be just me broadcasting information at them. It’s going to be me directing, but they are going to have to be engaged. Conversations are going to happen. Questions will come up.”
Conversations will stray from the topic of the day, but Trey sees pedagogical value in these expanded and unplanned conversations about science. Because of the growth and demand of science and technology industries, Trey believes that science is one of the most important fields students can study.
“For me, the ability to describe science for someone else—at any level—cannot be discounted, because that is the essence of science. If you know only how to solve problems, you are doing mathematics. If you can’t tell someone what is going on physically, then you truly don’t know what you are teaching. The guys who take quantum mechanics with me truly begin to understand the subject because I teach it in a way radically different from the way it was taught to me. We start with why you need to study quantum mechanics in the first place. We spend almost half of the semester going over concepts of quantum mechanics. We don’t solve our first problem until about halfway through the semester. Upon solving that first problem, all of the concepts that we had been covering come into play.”
You would be wrong to believe, however, that Trey is focused singularly on science. The Orange County native entered Old Dominion University at 18 years old with a passion for politics and his sights set firmly on serving a two-term U.S. presidency. His plans have obviously changed, but he is still interested in politics, public policy, law, and even religion.
Trey has developed an interdisciplinary course called “Energy in the Environment,” which includes basic concepts of physics, as well as governmental energy policy and its impact on the environment. He also recently taught “Life in the Universe,” a class that garnered information from nearly every natural science field while focusing on the philosophical question: “Should we even be concerned with the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe?” His class decided that the answer is unequivocally, “Yes.”
“I think many of my students know how I view the world,” says Trey. “But I try to remove my own personal impression or opinion from any topic that I teach. I try to teach as if I am just a source. I don’t want to convey upon them my interpretation of whatever we are discussing. Some students, however, will probe and ask me, ‘So, what do you believe?’”In his typically straightforward way, if his students ask, he tells them.
Part of what makes Trey such an effective teacher is that he actually does not see himself as a teacher.
“Students probably first recognize that I still see myself as a student. I still see myself as a learner. Yes, I am ‘in charge’ of the classroom setting. It does not mean that I know everything, nor does it mean that someone cannot surpass me in the knowledge that I have. But I do have time. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve acquired this knowledge by listening to other people and by doing my own work. At the same time, I don’t think that knowledge is gained by pouring it down one’s throat. Knowledge, to me, is gained by having a level playing field. We both sit at the table, and we both discuss an idea. I come at it with my point of view—time and experience—but the student also has something to contribute, and the best way to learn, in my opinion, is to level that playing field. If the student feels like he is on the same playing field, then he is going to feel more engaged in the learning experience.”
So, the first step to creating that level playing field, that approachable environment, is for Dr. Thurman’s students to get used to calling him “Trey,” which they all do in their own time.