Guest 'stars' make classroom experience shine

By Leslie King | Emory Report | May 1, 2012

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President Jimmy Carter, University Distinguished Professor, speaking to students of professor Hank Klibanoff's journalism class. Emory Photo/Video.

Professors and instructors burnish their students' classroom experience with guests speakers, personalities who are stars in their own spheres and who speak to the specifics of the discipline being taught — an experience described by professor David Blumenthal as "innovative, supplementary teaching."

It's a phenomenon professor Mark Wulkan calls an Emory tradition. Memorable classes, like these, are the ones students often especially remember. And the guest speakers can enhance the material being taught, bringing real-world experience to the subject.

In some cases, it's who you know: Big names come to campus to talk to large groups, but make appearances in individual classrooms of professors and instructors with whom they have a personal connection.

What professor Hank Klibanoff says of his guests is universal: "They have riveting stories, and the reaction by the students has been fantastic."

Here is a sampling:


Marketing executive for Atlanta Braves

Derek Schiller, executive vice president of sales and marketing of the Atlanta Braves, talks to Doug Bowman's class on product and brand management for full-time MBAs in the Goizueta Business School. This year, Schiller talked about marketing strategy in the Braves' upcoming season. "For this session," says Bowman, senior associate dean of external relations and professor of marketing, "he discussed the plans for online and social media marketing and innovative pricing strategies such as variable pricing and dynamic pricing." For example, he says, if a game is very popular the seat price may go up as ticket sales rise.  "Last year, [Schiller] talked about reallocating marketing from offline [platforms] such as print and broadcast media to more online," Bowman says. "I ask him to speak from a forward-looking perspective." Adds Bowman: The MBAs "love the guy. He's a really good presenter."


Authors, politicians and 'Cold Case' journalists

James M. Cox Professor of Journalism and Pulitzer Prize winner Hank Klibanoff brought investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell in fall semester. "Jerry is out meeting with Klan members, people threatening his life," says Klibanoff of the newspaperman who writes for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and who spoke to Klibanoff's Civil Rights Cold Cases and Journalism and Ethics classes.

Klibanoff also hosted Wayne State University professor Danielle McGuire whose  book, "At the Dark End of the Street," discusses sexual violence against black women by white men. For another class, the special guest was Stanley Nelson, whose "heroic" investigative efforts led to the empaneling of a grand jury for a 1964 unsolved slaying. "Stanley is number one on a three-person staff of a 4,500 circulation newspaper, the Concordia Sentinel, out of Faraday, Louisiana," he says.

The latest guest was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, University Distinguished Professor, who told the students about his relationship with the news media, then answered students' questions in the Journalism and Ethics class. (Read a related story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Carter's class visit.) 

Klibanoff notes the speakers in his classroom "are all terrific storytellers with their own narratives. They have hands-on research into records no one has seen before. They have unbelievable stories to tell ."


'Fat Boy' actor with the 'Varsity Blues'

For a few years now, pediatric surgery chief Mark Wulkan brings in to his spring semester class a real star: actor Ron Lester. Lester, who played "the fat guy" in the 1999 film "Varsity Blues" and recently starred in "The Fat Boy Chronicles," talks to Wulkan's class about his experience with bariatric surgery. While the procedure was good for his health, since losing weight down from a high of around 500 pounds, "he's had a harder time getting parts" in movies and TV, says Wulkan. The key thing Lester brings to the class, Wulkan says, is that "he is really good at letting [the students] inside his head... we see how surgery impacts a body but he shows them how it impacts the mind."


Investigative reporters on the 'pill mill'

Assistant Professor in Health Policy and Management Janet Cummings invited Shawn Hoder and Ross McLaughlin, reporters with the local WXIA-TV, to her U.S. Political Institutions and Health Policy Implementation class in the Rollins School of Public Health. Using the example of their Emmy-nominated undercover story about a "pill mill" in Georgia, they talked about how investigative journalism can serve as a catalyst for short-term and long-term change, including changes in policy. Their story also included a component to help educate the public about the seriousness of addiction to prescription narcotics including a hotline.  "Mr. Hoder and Mr. McLaughlin provided a tangible example for students about how the media can serve as an important catalyst for change in the health policy arena," Cummings says. 


French filmmaker

French filmmaker Pierre Sauvage came to campus for three appearances this semester. Spearheading his visit is David Blumenthal, Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies. The film "Weapons of the Spirit" is the story of how 5,00 Protestant villagers in a French farming hamlet in the mountains of south-central France saved Jews during the Nazi occupation. Documentarian and lecturer Sauvage and his parents were among those saved. In addition to a public viewing and talk, Sauvage will show a  film-in-progress and address Blumenthal's Introduction to Judaism class in Candler School of Theology. 


Diplomats from volatile region in Asia

Marion Creekmore, Jr., Distinguished Visiting Professor of History and Political Science, is a retired ambassador whose diplomatic career covered postings in a variety of nations, particularly in Asia. That experience and resulting connections are pulled into his classroom when he invites members of the diplomatic corps from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — "usually the political counselor who is the number three person on staff" — to address his class on South Asian politics in which he teaches the history of the three countries since their respective dates of independence.

"I have my students write a policy paper," says Creekmore, "and I bring in diplomats from each of those three nations." He's been doing that since the mid-2000s. "The embassies are very helpful and the diplomats are very happy to do this," he says.

Lately, Creekmore says he's been working closely with Ajit Kumar, consul general for the newly established Consulate of India in Atlanta. Ashraf Haidari, formerly the political counselor with the Afghan embassy in Washington, has been a frequent speaker.

The purpose is to "help students use the knowledge they're acquiring of the past to look to the future and the present. It's less difficult to write a paper about what has happened in the past than what should be done toward a country in the future."

Creekmore sees this as useful for any career, "a broadening of their education."

The visits "get virtually unanimous support" from students. "They ask some pretty tough questions as the diplomats balance the official government line with an effort to be responsive to the students' questions. I think it positively affects the way the students will perform in their careers."