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Welch introduces students to a world of possibilities

Claude Welch

Claude Welch says he's done his job as a teacher when his students surpass him in knowledge and understanding. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 28, 2013

Video

Marilee Couldron talks about what makes Claude Welch a special teacher.

There was a time early in his career when Claude Welch would be covered in chalk dust at the end of the day. The state of his clothes, it turns out, had more to do with his inexperience than the inherently messy medium of the old black boards.

“I kept backing up against the board because I didn’t know how to teach,” says Welch.

But over the course of 50 years, much has changed for the SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in UB’s Department of Political Science.

“My clothes are cleaner today because of PowerPoint,” he says.

That Welch injects humor into his conversations is completely expected from someone who is likely to provide an equal degree of wit in his classroom. One of his recent lectures included a rendition of “Frere Jacques,” sung in both French and German. Yet, the musical interlude was introduced for purposes other than mere levity. The day’s class discussion involved patterns of child raising, working within families and educating kids, and one of the ways to do this, says Welch, is “to inculcate the mother language.”

“Effective, even if I was slightly off key,” he admits.

Yet if years of singing have failed to improve his pitch, he has nevertheless honed his teaching to perfection over that same period of time.

Just as great singers seek out other vocalists to improve their craft, Welch sought out other teachers, auditing classes to improve his own performance. When looking for classes that might inform his own teaching, he made decisions based on the effectiveness of the instructor rather than material being presented, a fact that often put him outside his area of expertise.

Most of what Welch brings to his students, however, is the result of a university portfolio that touches on all aspects of campus life. At various times, he has served in administrative positions, such as dean, associate provost and department chair. But he was always teaching, regardless of what role may have taken most of his time.

“I love the opportunity to interact with small groups,” he says, “where people come together and share ideas.”

That statement at once seems curious. Though he teaches one graduate seminar a year and last spring taught an additional seminar on human rights for the law school, much of Welch’s recognition as a teacher comes from his World Civilization class. Hardly a small group, World Civ, as it’s often called, might be populated by more people than some of the civilizations being studied. Yet, Welch loves teaching this class, in particular, and takes great pleasure in scaling the large assembly into the smaller breakout sessions that delight students like undergraduate Marilee Couldron.

“I feel like I can ask any question, raise any issue that’s related to the subject matter,” Couldron says. “Students are comfortable talking to him and I think that means a lot to everybody.”

For Welch, the chance to closely relate with his students gives him a better perspective on their growth, allowing him to recognize the development of their knowledge and understanding regarding the issues and concepts he’s teaching.

“It’s satisfying for me to see students have a willingness to move away from merely asking what is the right answer and what is the wrong answer to the level of a mature adult who is thinking about the future and is willing to ponder a number of possible approaches."