Experience with Students
The research problem already mentioned that I tackled in my first semester at Illinois proved to be the last which I worked on with my own hands. Like the other teachers, I was besieged by students who wanted to be introduced to research; what I have called missionary work began. This term turned out to be fundamentally wrong for in my case at least the "missionary" knew little more than the "pagans" who were up for conversion. What we engaged in was rather a process of co-learning.
Doing research with students brought me a two-fold satisfaction; to my obsession with chemistry was added a personal interest in the student. I never tired of discussing their problems, chemical or otherwise; many of them I coached for the examinations in foreign languages. Always, I took pleasure in helping them with the writing of the thesis and any papers that were prepared for publication. On the average I had between four and five theses to read every year and each seemed to be a milepost. That the total number finally came to 154 is something even I can hardly believe.
Teaching students individually is a far cry from teaching classes. When I came to Illinois, I had behind me three years of teaching in one-room schools of Jasper County and two years at Corvallis. My dissatisfaction with teaching was one of the reasons I chose chemistry as a major rather than mathematics or modern languages. A chemist doesn't have to teach!
My mania for doing independent research changed all that and committed me to a life of teaching. The cause of my difficulties was shyness, which had plagued me from childhood. My father had no such trouble; although he broke with the church of his forbears he did not escape their love of the limelight. Even with some of my brothers and sisters heredity ran true to form. But not with me. I had been brought to realize my shortcoming in this respect by experience in a debating society at the Central Normal College. The two debating societies elected their own members much as fraternities do and membership was a status symbol; it seemed to be taken for granted.that excellence on the part of a student carried with it an interest in and an aptitude for debate. As a member of the Ciceronians I took my turn in debate but I always lost. Never in my life was I so badly miscast.
In the problem of teaching classes, I had an extremely good example in my first teacher of organic chemistry, Dr. J. W. Howard of the University of Montana. He was chiefly responsible for my choice of field of concentration but that was not all. His skill in teaching; his dedication to organic chemistry and to students, even his personal life gave me an ideal to live by. Only much later did I have a chance to try to put into practice what I had learned from him about good teaching. The gap between what I thought I was and what he had inspired me to want to be was never wider than at the time I went to Illinois.
To make my predicament even more serious, my first undergraduate teaching assignment there was a course in organic chemistry for students of agriculture. The audience was strictly captive and evinced scant interest in the subject. In desperation I decided to make a personal approach; I soon knew each student's name and was able to ask about his high school by name.
This scheme to win them over to my side proved to be very successful, Moreover, it boomeranged. In my effort to make them like me and my course, I soon found that my pretense of interest in them turned to reality. Moreover, I felt at home before a class made up of my friends. Without in the least suspecting it, I had set my foot on the path that led to the teaching award. In my subsequent handling of classes, no matter how large, I always knew the names of all of them.
The Teaching Award
When the news came that I had received the Manufacturing Chemists' Association Award for college chemistry teaching, I was elated. I learned of the honor, however, at an inopportune time, at 8:30 a.m. on a day when I had a 9 a.m. class. In a matter of minutes, I was transformed from a famous teacher to one who simply didn't have his lesson prepared for the class he shortly had to face. This experience convinced me that if I ever came to believe that I was a superior teacher I would be deluding myself. For I would have lost the humility if not the sincerity that for me made good teaching possible.
My practice of getting acquainted with many students made me useful in matters of evaluation required for the award of such things as fellowships and for placement of students in jobs after graduation. In such endeavors leaned very heavily on on Dr. Marvel as I have already intimated. He was of the executive type; when we had agreed on a course of action, he reached for his telephone. Many a student got a job in this way.
When Illinois graduates get together, they invariably fall to discussing the question "Why are Illini so loyal to their school?" "What made Illinois so special?"- The name of Dr. Marvel, who was known to teachers and students alike as "Speed", is always given prominent mention. Other names too come up, including mine, I imagine. But always Speed's.
Indeed, nearly all Illinois chemists of his time are directly indebted to him. He developed the basic course in organic chemistry taken by all undergraduates. Moreover, he coupled an eagerness to help others with a rare talent for sizing up people. He was the best placement officer we ever had.
The second semester of Speed's course, eventually designated as Chemistry 336, served also as a remedial course for graduate students. In his hands the course became famous for its excellence and attracted many auditors. Whenever Illini get together you are sure to hear someone say "Speed was the best teacher I ever had."
When the curriculum was changed in such a way as to cause Chemistry 336 to be offered every semester, I was pressed into service. How could I carry on at the high level set by Speed? Little could be learned by observation for he did not even seem to try. With little or no preparation he grabbed a sheaf of time worn notes with changes scribbled in the margins and went to class.
My lectures, on the contrary, were so well prepared that I appeared before the class without a scrap of paper. Moreover; I not only learned all their names but did everything I could think of to make the class go well. But this was not enough; Speed had proved that. The most important and most elusive factor had yet to be added - personality. I think of personality somewhat vaguely as the part of our make-up that cannot be measured, fed into a computer or dealt with by the college of education. Clearly when I taught in Jasper County and at Corvallis my personality was not a great asset. Then what happened between Corvallis and Chemistry 336?
Letter from Dean Rankin
When I was on the campus at Commencement time in 1966, Joe Sutton looked me up and asked permission to write about me in his Alumni News series "Quality in Education." When he came for the interview he showed me two letters written about me and my work in 1928. One of the letters was to Dr. Adams from the late Dean Rankin and read in part as follows.
"Early this year reports and comments of students reached this office concerning the interest and I might call the enthusiasm which a number of the boys had, who were taking Chemistry 32 and upon inquiry I found that Dr. Reynold C. Fuson, Associate in Chemistry, was a person who had really gotten hold of the boys and interested them in this course and in many instances that I directly knew of, rendered personal assistance, which gave somewhat slower students an insight into the work. These good reports have continued to come in and I wish to drop this note to express the appreciation which the writer has for the very excellent work which Dr. Fuson is doing. He seems to be a most capable man with a fine personality and a teacher having ability to impart enthusiasm to his students.
"As you well know good teachers of chemistry are often hard to secure, so many people being interested in the research line and I am simply dropping this note of unsolicited commendation of the work of Dr. Fuson, believing that you would like to know of same. For if you get a good teacher in any department let us do all we can to uphold him and give him all the encouragement possible."
"In my opinion Dr. Fuson is not only an able man in his line but has back of him the setting and inclination which causes him to take a a personal interest in the agricultural boys who are taking work with him. Now that you have secured so good a man I hope you will be able to keep him in this work."
How pleased I would have been if I had been told of this letter 38 years earlier!