Friday, July 2, 2010

The Inspiring Teacher Series: Interview with Jody Blanke

Jody Blanke
Professor of Computer Information Systems and Law
Director of Undergraduate Programs
Stetson School of Business and Economics
Mercer University
Atlanta, GA

Jody Blanke has been a full-time college professor for the past 27 years. He earned a B.S. in Computer Science and Psychology and an M.S. in Computer Science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a J.D. at the Emory University School of Law. After practicing law and clerking for a judge for several years, Blanke starting teaching full-time at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY. After two years at St. John’s, he came to Mercer University to chair the Computer Science Department at the College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta. After five years there, he moved to the School of Business and has been there ever since.

Blanke has had law journal articles published in the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review, the American Business Law Journal, and the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, among others. His main areas of research are privacy law and copyright law. He is currently serving his second stint as Director of Undergraduate Programs at Mercer. He is most proud of twice receiving the Outstanding Faculty Award, which is bestowed annually based primarily on the voting and comments of graduating students.

What inspired you to teach?
I don’t believe that there is any one thing that I can point to. During my school years, I always seemed able to explain things well to my fellow classmates. While I was in graduate school, I had an opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant and I enjoyed that a great deal. After practicing law for a few years, I looked into the possibility of teaching a course or two as a part-time instructor. As it happened, St. John’s was looking for a full-time instructor and I gave it a shot – no master plan here.

When I look back at teachers I had when I was in school, two names pop out at me. The first was an Earth Science teacher I had at Linden Junior High School – Harvey Moder. He was a retired fireman and was very dedicated to his students. I happen to have him the year of the Teacher’s Strike in New York City. We missed almost two months of school. He invited students to his house during the strike so that we wouldn’t get too far behind. He also arranged a trip to a science lab at his alma mater – Hofstra University. It was the first time most of us had been to a college campus. He went out of his way to help us learn.

The second great teacher I had was Robert Greenman at Madison High School. He taught English and Journalism. He also went way beyond the job description in his teaching and his supervision of the publication of the school newspaper. Back in those days, we had to bring the content to a typesetter to set up the pages for publication. He would drive a few of us to the printing press in Manhattan and we would spend many hours laying out the pages. Mr. Greenman cared greatly about his students. In thinking back on it today, I realize that he understood that each student was different and that he needed to treat each student differently.

What teaching methods are most helpful in guiding students towards their goals?
One thing that I have come to realize is how differently people learn. There is no “One Size Fits All.” There are visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners and probably other types as well. It becomes particularly challenging because most of my delivery comes by way of four-hour lecture periods. It helps to have PowerPoint presentations for people to read, but it is absolutely necessary to get students engaged in the discussion.

I generally start off all my law lectures with Legal Show and Tell. Students are supposed to bring in stories about legal news that they read, heard or saw during the past week. For the most part, these are about current events, about which many students have at least some interest. And almost always, I can tie the legal issues to some topic that we will be exploring. It also helps to get as many students as possible involved in the discussion.

I like to teach by example. I think it is much easier to understand an idea if you can see it in action, rather than merely in the abstract. Quite often you can discuss the nuances of the topic by simply varying the facts of the example. Also, I believe that it is imperative to explain why we have certain laws and rules, rather than merely what they are. It is much easier to learn something if you understand the rationale behind it.

And finally you must not lose sight of the forest for the trees. It is very difficult to learn about something in a vacuum. You must be able to step back and look at the big picture, to understand how and where the rule fits in. I try to do this as often as possible in each lecture.

What would you like to improve about your teaching?
One of the biggest challenges I face is to keep the material fresh and entertaining. The last thing I would want someone to say about my class is that it is boring. When I first started teaching, I taught probably 8 or 9 different computer science courses each year. I much preferred that to teaching the same course over and over again. I was continually learning new material and changing my courses because the subject matter changed so rapidly. For the past 15 years or so, I have pretty much been teaching the introductory legal and ethical environment course in our various business degree programs – the BBA, the MBA, the Executive MBA and the Professional MBA. While each course is somewhat different, the basic topics in law remain very similar.

I think it was Joe DiMaggio who, when asked why he always played baseball so hard, responded that someone at the game might be seeing him for their one and only time, and that he wanted to make sure that that person saw him play the game the way it should be played. Before I teach something like contract law – which I could probably start teaching within seconds notice if awoken at 3:00 in the morning – I have to get myself excited about the subject. I have to realize that my students probably don’t know much about contract law and that I have to bring energy and enthusiasm to the classroom to make the subject as interesting for them as it is for me.

What skills should be emphasized in high school to succeed in your college class?
As a college professor, I have to emphasize how important it is to be able to write clearly and succinctly. It is extremely important. But I also would like to mention two other skills – probably more accurately described as traits – but traits that can be learned and honed. The first is inquisitiveness. Asking questions is of utmost importance to successful learning. You must ask questions in order to learn. The second is persistence. To truly learn something you must never give up. If one approach to learning something doesn’t work, try another approach. (And by the way, one of the most effective ways to learn something is to have to teach it.)

Do you have any last bits of wisdom?
Yes. For those high school and college students who do not yet know what they want to major in – don’t worry! Take a variety of courses. Take courses that sound interesting to you. Ultimately, you will be most successful in learning about something that interests you or for which you have a passion. Try something different!

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