YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE HOT PROFS : Some outstanding college teachers stimulate their students with stand-up comedy, folk songs and cruises in a Cessna

April 11, 1991|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Szymanski is a regular contributor to Valley View

Surely everyone who went to college has a favorite professor--someone whose ability to motivate, encourage and inspire is still felt years later.

Sometimes a popular professor's skill becomes so widely known on campus that far more students sign up for his or her course than the classroom can hold.

An informal survey of the eight institutions of higher education in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys found 10 teachers who continue to leave indelible marks in students' memories.

Many other professors are also worthy of mention. But if a student at any of these colleges is heard raving about a teacher, chances are he or she has one of these in mind.



Jules Engel can't walk down the halls of CalArts without greeting at least a dozen students by name--reciting each one's major for the benefit of a visitor. The 65-year-old curmudgeon with a thick Hungarian accent stumbled into teaching experimental animation quite by accident, but he's been doing it at the art institute in Valencia for 18 years.

"A friend many years ago told me once that he thought I would be a good teacher because he could tell I really cared," Engel said. "The most important thing for me is that students feel that they are looked after and not just a number."

In addition to teaching a full class load, Engel provides intense one-on-one tutoring to about 40 students. He gives advice whenever needed, even during breakfast and lunch on campus.

"Many mentors are more anxious to prove how much they know and so they destroy a new talent," Engel grumbled. "They want to make clones of themselves in their students."

To avoid repressing originality, Engel identifies a student's talent and goals and tries to motivate the student through trust.

"It's not what I give a student, it's what I don't take away from a student and how I nurture what they already have," Engel said.

Engel is a well-known painter and an award-winning filmmaker. His paintings were included in a traveling art exhibit, "Early L.A. Modernists."

Engel confessed that he feigns forgetfulness during his lectures when too many students seem to be looking out the window. In a recent class, for example, he pretended to forget the name of a bird in the film "The Lone Ranger." Quickly, students jumped in to help, and he held their attention for the rest of the lecture.

"I don't always know everything," Engel said. "Most teachers are so damn afraid a student will ask a question that they won't have an answer for, but that makes a teacher a human being."

He is popular "because I'm available," he said flatly. "If a teacher puts up fences, students are afraid to talk to you or afraid they will bother you."


Cal State Northridge

Every semester, psychology Prof. Patricia Keith-Spiegel and environmental health Prof. Dennis Kelly inspire some Cal State Northridge students to major in their disciplines. The professors are happy to have such an influence, but both caution about the competitive fields they teach.

"At this age, they are making serious life decisions and I love being a part of that," said Keith-Spiegel, who also is president of the psychology teaching division of the American Psychological Assn.

Her students describe her as an "academic Carol Burnett" because of the comedy she incorporates into her 50-minute talks. She said she walks down the halls and hears teachers talk in a dull monotone, so she always tries to keep her classes lively.

"I don't believe in corporal punishment in schools. I tell a story about when I was a 4-year-old who was swatted by a nun in Catholic school," said Keith-Spiegel, who did studies showing how such punishment can result in aggressive behavior.

She was viewed as disrespectful, so she was hit 20 times with a ruler, although she didn't understand why. She was ordered to sit outside near a fishpond and grew so angry she yanked a fish out of the water and watched it flip-flop to death on the concrete.

"I was a sweet, animal-loving little girl who got expelled from kindergarten," Keith-Spiegel said. "Most of the class is rolling in the aisles when I tell it. Of course, I still feel guilty about taking out my anger on a poor, defenseless fish."

Last year, Keith-Spiegel was chosen over 19,000 teachers in the state as California State University Outstanding Professor. She cherishes the more than 50 letters of support from students as much as the award.

Her graduate students say that although other professors delegate such tasks as correcting essay tests and term papers to teaching assistants, Keith-Spiegel insists on doing them herself for up to 100 students each semester. She has written four books--including one to help students apply to graduate school. Twenty-five years ago, after attending graduate school at the Claremont Colleges, she began teaching at CSUN; she announced that she will be leaving in the fall to teach at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Los Angeles Times Articles