The Rebel Professor

An Entirely Different Approach to College Education Embraces the ‘Old School’ and Inspires Students

By: Brooke Brown

A maverick. And we’re not talking Tom Cruise here.

They’re few and far between these days, and when we find them it’s as if society doesn’t know what to do with them. Some call them rebellious, others call them revolutionary.

Professor Ken DeBevoise is a maverick. Taking a legendary ‘Ken Class’ at the University of Oregon is like taking the highway to the danger zone, with no Goose there to watch your back.

At 4 o’clock on the dot he walks into the classroom in his black Chuck Taylors and baseball cap and singles out someone to pick on, calling them by a nickname they didn’t choose. He makes students angry, he makes students laugh, he makes students work, and he makes students think.

The 67-year-old New Jersey native has a self-described “old school” teaching philosophy he learned after years of learning what not to do from his own professors at Stanford and UC Hastings law school. “I essentially have rejected every model [of teaching], and just figured out how it ought to be done,” says DeBevoise.

This backhanded inspiration led him to his current teaching style, based mainly on the idea of good old-fashioned hard work. His political science classes focus on a specific category, such as Egypt or Inner-City Politics, and consist of students reading 75 pages a night of various kinds of books on the topic. They are then quizzed on any random part of the assigned reading, and the rest of the class is student-led discussion.

DeBevoise first got the idea to teach this way in his twenties when he taught English for the Peace Corps in Thailand. He had his Thai students read one book a week, and tested them on the subjects and the vocabulary. “I learned that if you don’t challenge people, they aren’t going to do much, ‘cause it’s too much fun doing other stuff.”

He taught students from a small farming area who had to test their knowledge against students at much better schools in Bangkok. The hard work paid off when 3 of his 10 students placed in the top 10 best scores for a nation-wide English test.

Not only does he push students to their limits, he connects with them through personal relationships that most professors would never take the time to create or sustain. “I love Ken. He’s funny, and he makes me laugh all the time, even when he’s being serious sometimes,” student Caitlin St.Clair says with a laugh. She’s taken as many ‘Ken Classes’ as possible in the past 2 years and loves the challenge that is presented by DeBevoise’s teaching style.

“There’s a level of engagement that you get in Ken’s classes that you can’t get in other classes at the University. You come into a class with a certain set of ideals and you’re forced to reexamine those,” says St.Clair.

Due to the rigor of his courses, so many students drop that his class sizes are small enough for everyone to get to know each other. Students enjoy his company so much that DeBevoise has been known to accompany them on trips to Rennie’s Bar after class to keep the discussion going. He calls them all by their nicknames of course, which he creates for them within the first couple weeks of class.

Ken talks with student Caitlin St.Clair after class

One of his favorite nicknames for a student was “Arkan,” the name of a Serbian gangster in a book the class read.  The student embraced it so much that he began to be known more by “Arkan” than his real name. “The best nicknames are the ones that come out of the experience we all had together,” says DeBevoise. He still receives emails from students from as far back as ten years ago who sign with their nickname.

Despite his natural knack for it, DeBevoise didn’t always know he had a passion for teaching. Before traveling to Thailand, he figured he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. “I remember laying in bed and literally losing sleep at night. Instead of thinking about the law, I would think about how I could teach that class better than the professor did,” he says with a grin, “that should have been a clue.”

Ever since taking up teaching forty years ago it has become his source of passion and drive. In fact, most things he does outside the classroom relate to his teaching, and he would have it no other way. “Most people in the world don’t have jobs that they love. It would be entirely empty to live for the weekends. I get up on a Tuesday and look forward to my Tuesday.”

But with this passion comes bitterness toward the growing trend of lecture-based classes in undergraduate education. His response to the modern trend of less competition in education and the idea that everyone should get a college education is two words: “Entirely bogus.”

DeBevoise is rarely seen without his black Chuck Taylors

“The lecture model is based on learning that is transferred externally. It’s nonsense.  The ultimate responsibility is on the learner, not the teacher, to manufacture and develop their own knowledge.” It’s his nonconformist teaching style that is causing the University to consider not renewing his teaching contract due to “lack of funds.”

In support, hundreds of his students from across the country have rallied to his defense as part of the Keep Ken Coalition, a group fighting to help keep him at the University of Oregon. The support, to DeBevoise, is “tangible evidence of hundreds of people saying they appreciate what you did. There’s nothing better than that.”

In response to questions about the conflict, he answered in the manner of a true rebel, with a shrug and a slight smirk, “If you’re doing something differently than everyone else does, you get all sorts of resistance.”

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