Duren Professors Teach From A New Perspective

March 28, 2002

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: 865-5714

A mathematician teaches number theory, rather than calculus, as a better introduction to math for novices. Two medievalists--an art historian and an English professor--tie images and text to the imagination in a course for students who know nothing in advance about the Middle Ages.

These out-of-the-disciplinary-box approaches to teaching undergraduates are part of Duren professorships, a new Tulane College program designed to encourage team-teaching and the development of multidisciplinary courses by liberal arts and sciences faculty members.

Holders of Duren professorships this year are Victor Moll, associate professor of mathematics; William Tronzo, professor of art; Michael Kuczynski, chair and associate professor of English; Morris Kalka, professor of mathematics; Linda L. Carroll, professor of Italian; and Thomas Luongo, assistant professor of history.

"I think what the Duren professorship lets you do is be more creative about how you approach your teaching," says Carroll. Carroll and Luongo taught a new core course in the fall for the newly approved Italian studies major.

Faculty members teach differently when they're teaching new topics, says Carroll, because they aren't so used to the course content. "You're a little vulnerable," she adds. "One strength of the Duren program is that it is deliberately designed to bring faculty research into the classroom for students who are at an early stage of their undergraduate studies," says Carroll.

Carroll discovered that teaching her own research was somewhat difficult, although energizing as her students compelled her to look at her work through "fresh eyes." Her students had no familiarity with information that seemed apparent to Carroll after years of working in her research field--Italian Renaissance theater. She had to keep reinforcing her points from different perspectives. But the wonderful thing about teaching total newcomers is that "students ask marvelous questions," says Carroll.

"Sometimes it's a question of the elephant in the room. Sometimes it's like, gee, I've been working with this for 15 years, why didn't I think of that?"

Besides bringing faculty members' own advanced research into the undergraduate classroom, the Duren professorship program is designed to foster cross-disciplinary interactions. Kalka will teach a course on the history of math next fall, and with the Duren fund, he's brought in speakers this spring.

"It's fostering interaction between mathematicians and people outside the sciences," Kalka says, "which is something that we haven't seen much here. It's seeing mathematics as part of the general culture."

Kuczynski and Tronzo developed their Duren course--The Medieval Imagination--from an earlier team-taught course, drawing on each other's expertise in medieval literature and art.

"The idea behind the course was to introduce students to sophisticated material that they might otherwise think their access to was prohibited because of lack of specialized learning," says Kuczynski. Now Kuczynski and Tronzo are collaborating on a textbook based on The Medieval Imagination course. Kuczynski and Tronzo have different teaching styles, says Kuczyn-ski. Both attended each other's lectures.

"We would interrupt each other and jump up and clarify things. If he was talking about 14th-century Italy, I'd chime in about what was going on in England at the same time."

The good response that Kuczynski and Tronzo got from their interplay of ideas pleases them both. Kuczynski says, "We are interested not just in being research scholars but we're excited by teaching."

Rewarding such excitement about teaching is the aim of the Duren professorships, says Tony Cummings, dean of Tulane College and chair of the Duren professorship selection committee. The Duren professorships were established through an endowed gift from William L. Duren Jr. Duren, a 1926 graduate of Tulane's College of Arts and Sciences (now Tulane College), earned a master's degree from Tulane and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.

He taught in Tulane's math department for 24 years, serving as chair for several years. He later moved to the University of Virginia, where he was a professor of mathematics and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. During his higher education career, Duren became increasingly concerned about faculty members' potentially conflicting notions of teaching "loads" and research "opportunities," says Cummings.

Now in his 90s, Duren is "convinced that many of the rewards that faculty members get are on the side of their scholarship and their research," says Cummings. Although Duren is himself a distinguished scholar and a renowned computer scientist and mathematician, "he felt that somebody had to be looking out for the other agenda of the modern university, which is the teaching of the undergraduate curriculum," says Cummings.

Mary Ann Travis may be reached at

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