For nine years, I both taught statistics to first year medical students at the University of North Dakota and was the scoutmaster for Troop 20 in Grand Fork. Early on, I figured out two things about my 20-something medical students and my 11- to 12-year-old Scouts.
The first was that when students and Scouts asked me a question, it was pretty much always, “What should I do now?” or “How do I solve” whatever problem the questioner was facing. The second thing was that the only difference is that the Scouts would start their questions with “Mr. Slotnick,” while the medical students said “Dr. Slotnick.”
Since that difference was trivial, I responded to both groups in the same way by smiling and asking, “Well, what do you think?” Why smile? Because any less pleasant expression would be interpreted as the questioner had somehow disappointed me while smiling implied the questioner and I were going to have an enjoyable conversation. And we did.
Did the Scouts and physicians-to-be notice what I was doing? Well, one fall, four people admitted to the first-year class didn’t show up. I expect they’d decided to go elsewhere, and so their seats were offered to those at the top of the waiting list. They, all women, accepted and joined the class a week late.
I arranged for them to get the information they’d missed in class, and they become a study group which meant collaborating on a project. And since one woman’s mother-in law had just died of breast cancer, they decided their project would be reporting on statistical characteristics of women with a diagnosis of that lesion.
And since all the students were encouraged to call practicing physicians if they had questions they couldn’t answer in the library (this was before we all had online capabilities), I gave them the name of a Canadian gynecologic oncologist I knew who would be happy to help them. I knew this because Dr. Rosen and I had collaborated on instructional activities in the past.
The women appeared in my office midway through their efforts to share what they’d learned and to talk about what to do next. I was unsurprised to learn my friend had been helpful to them, and they’d indeed made good progress on their data collection and report preparation. In fact, the only surprise is that when we’d finished, the four were hesitant to leave. And so I asked if there was something else they’d wanted to talk about.
Their demeanor changed from happy to slightly sheepish, and so I smiled again and asked once more what was on their minds. The leader said she didn’t know if what they wondered about would be inappropriate, so I smiled again and asked what was on their minds.
“Well,” she asked shyly, “Did you teach Dr. Rosen how to teach?”
“I’m sure he gained things from our conversations about instruction just as I did,” I speculated, continuing with, “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” the young woman said, now smiling, “every time we asked him a question, he’d respond with, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And when we talked about that later, we guessed that that we didn’t need to talk to him face to face because we already knew what the expression on his face was.”
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.