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Tuesday, September 9, 2003
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Faculty Feature
Atypical professor gains student approval

By Natalie Smith

Thom Conroy

Thom Conroy

As students shuffled in and crowded into the seats of Room 14 in Ohio University's Ellis Hall, they glanced at the unfamiliar faces around them with looks of uneasiness.

"What's this class even about?" one student whispered to another. No one knew. The clock read 5:20 p.m. "Is this guy coming?" the students wondered.

Moments later a man entered the classroom and took his seat at the front. "Anyone in here wanting a pink slip?" he asked. Many raised their hands. He told them to leave.

He proceeded to explain that the class, English 200: Introduction to Literature, was not suitable for the slacker student. It required 60 or more pages of reading a night. He left the room to allow for any students to drop the class anonymously. Many more piled out.

He re-entered, armed with a large stack of books and piles of handouts, ready to take on the brave remaining students. As the nervous group listened attentively, an outgoing and quirky personality began to unfold from beneath the intimidating man the students met just moments ago.

It became apparent that this class was unlike any ordinary English class and Dr. Thom Conroy was not the typical professor. Conroy began his first day of classes explaining to students that his class requires a large amount of hard work -- but that having fun is essential.

Although students were frightened by Conroy at first, their opinions quickly changed. The course "was especially easier than the way he presented it to us on the first day of class," Lara McClatchey said. "I liked the class because it was discussion based, not a lecture and writing class." Regardless of the amount of reading, most found Conroy entertaining and his course highly worth while. McClatchey recommends the class "for sure to anyone who likes reading."

Despite Conroy's love for teaching, it was not always his first choice of careers. "I wanted to be a writer, not that that's a career," he said with a laugh. Well, he conceded, continuing, maybe a successful career could include writing -- "that and pizza delivery."

"Teaching is half entertainment, though many professors might not agree," Conroy said. "I'm sort of a ham. It comes naturally." Most students approve and find his techniques a positive change.

Conroy began writing around age 13 and has had four short stories published. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he said. "I sent in over 2,000 manuscripts. I used to write full-length fantasy novels. Luckily those didn't survive."

His inspiration, though, differs slightly from what most might expect. "It's not butterflies, sunsets, or beautiful women," he told the class, but "language."

"It may sound boring, but I love language. I like words. I like to see one word next to another," Conroy explained.

Six years ago he began teaching at the Athens campus, having been drawn to its creative writing program and wide range of English classes. "I find students at Ohio University are tremendously well prepared in writing," Conroy said -- comparing Ohio University with other institutions such as the University of Oklahoma, where he received his master's degree in English literature.

"Teaching is learning a balance between structure and freedom," Conroy said in describing the evolution of his teaching approach. "At first I was too structured, and then I was too loose." But even now that he's had time to refine his approach, he finds that "every day is always a surprise. No day is what I expected. I'm always shocked by the opinions of students."

"He's got a laid-back perspective," Jacki Namestnick said. "He wants us to learn, but not by him lecturing us continually. He's open to other ideas and opinions suggested by the students. It's a nice change to not have such a structured environment."

Conroy, in the classroom, glanced at his watch. "How are we doing on time?" he asked his students. "Well, I did have a quiz I was going to give you, but you all were so involved in discussion. It's a shame I wasted all this paper. I guess I can take attendance now."

Natalie Smith is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.
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