By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo by Stacey Shintani

My whole approach is to generate arguments on different sides of a question. But I want the discussion focused.”
—Wendy Olmsted

Before she teaches, Wendy Olmsted has a routine. “I stop at the library and get coffee. I walk very calmly and look at the trees. I don’t want to think just then. I just want to get a sense of focus.”

By the time she walks into the classroom, Olmsted feels relaxed and ready to tackle the material—whether it’s the Odyssey or a Jane Austen novel. She finds it easy to lose track of time while teaching. “Once I get going, I’m a little monomaniacal,” she admits.

That quality has served her well in the past—on one particularly memorable day early in her teaching career, political protesters walked into her classroom. “Surprisingly, that did not bother me,” Olmsted remembers. “I just kept going.”

Critical Thinking

Olmsted found inspiration for her career as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, which emphasized a balance between faculty research and teaching. There, Olmsted says, “I discovered critical thinking.” One professor in particular, Sandra Berwind, “confronted us with difficult questions and had us struggle with these texts. I just never questioned things as much as I did in that class. I had never been in such a lively class. I had never thought so much.”

Her first teaching experience was “sheer terror,” she says. “I wasn’t so much older than my students.”

But in time she grew more comfortable, a change brought on in part by learning from and teaching at UChicago with James Redfield, the Edward Olson Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought; Herman Sinaiko, Professor in the Humanities and the College; and renowned literary scholar Wayne Booth. “We did challenge students to think about difficult issues—we didn’t just teach content. I was hooked from that moment on,” says Olmsted, AM’66, PhD’74.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Olmsted continues to emphasize critical thinking and encourages students to challenge the conventional wisdom on a given topic. In her Greek Thought and Literature classes, she often has several students who come prepared with historical facts, certain they can settle all debates. Yet she aims to push them away from their sense of certainty.

“My whole approach is to generate arguments on different sides of a question. But I want the discussion focused,” she says.

“I use lectures at the beginning to open up lines of inquiry. I get students to make claims using evidence in the text,”Olmsted says of teaching Greek Thought and Literature. She also occasionally lectures in the middle of class “to help gather up the threads.”

To keep discussion on track, she uses a simple technique. “The first thing that is so important is to listen. You need to have a sense of the strands [of discussion] and how they’re developing.”

When everything goes right, “the discussion goes back and forth between making claims and digging for evidence in the text.”

For Olmsted, nothing is quite like a discussion that opens students’ minds to new possibilities. “I like the excitement of discovery,” she says.

Originally published on June 14, 2010.