Q&A: Michael Danahy on His Approach to Teaching


Michael Danahy

Bowdoin Daily Sun:What is the most important quality you bring into the classroom?

Professor Michael Danahy: I think enthusiasm for chemistry is key. I started down a path in chemistry because I thought it was interesting, so imparting that interest (and enthusiasm) in the subject is key. Besides, chemistry neatly explains all goings on in the universe on a scale that’s comprehensible…how can you not be excited about it?!

BDS: What are you hoping the students will walk away with at the end of your class every day, and at the end of the semester?

MD: On a class-by-class basis, I hope students can see that chemistry is a doable subject. The way you achieve that as a teacher is by being clear. Clarity is key because even if you’re teaching the most interesting subject in the world (i.e. chemistry), you cannot convey that to students without being clear. By the end of the semester, I hope students walk away understanding how electrons, atoms, and molecules behave. I am not so interested in them memorizing factoids about certain reactions. If you understand how matter behaves, you realize that all of nature, from the smallest cell to the largest organism, is behaving by the same laws. As odd as it seems, having a good grasp of chemistry makes you more connected to the entire universe…we’re all behaving by the same laws!

BDS: How do you prepare for your classes? Is there a danger in over preparing?

MD: For each class, besides “covering” certain material, I try to step back and see if I can find an example which shows students why a certain chemistry is relevant in a larger sense. Students need to see the connection (i.e. why do we need to learn this?) between their academic lives and their non-academic lives.

BDS: How do you get large classes engaged? Both in class and with difficult material?

MD: I keep a class, even a large class, engaged by conducting a lecture more like a conversation than a lecture. Sure, I “need to” cover material, but doing so in a conversational way makes the material more approachable and allows discussion. I love classes when students ask questions like, ‘Why does that happen?’ and ‘Wouldn’t this other reaction also compete?’ That shows to me that they are listening and remained engaged.

With difficult material, a teacher can go a long way by admitting that a certain subject is difficult. For example, many times students seem to think that the laboratory synthesis of a molecule (say taxol) was elucidated in linear path (A + B make C, then C + D make E and so on), which is never the case! Showing them that a certain synthesis took many human hours and countless dead-ends humanizes the subject. Also, trying to demonstrate that a difficult concept has connections to easier concepts they already know is important. Many complex ideas are not new, they are just new takes on older ideas or combinations of ideas students already know.

BDS: How paternalistic must a good teacher be? Should you give regular quizzes or call on people who aren’t raising their hands much?

MD: I think a good teacher needs to be concerned about their students. I really see my role as a guide for them through chemistry. Many students think of chemistry as a dark forest that they will never be able to navigate. But, if they have someone to guide them through the forest, someone who knows how it works and has been through it before, they can make it through to the other side and understand how the forest works. From a brass tacks approach, a good teacher needs to regularly make sure students are keeping up with the material. Things like quizzes and homework feedback (usually not graded) are key to making sure students are keeping up the voluminous material of organic chemistry.

BDS: How did you learn to teach? Who do you credit for inspiration?

MD: I credit my graduate advisor (Jeffrey Schwartz of Princeton University) with “teaching” me how to teach, and he is absolutely my inspiration. Jeff always looks like he is having fun teaching. Each class with him showed me that enthusiasm for the subject you are teaching is infectious. Coincidentally, Prof. Schwartz is being honored this year by Princeton for his excellence in teaching, so I’d say I learned from the best!