Teaching from the Corner

When I was an undergraduate at BYU, there was a guy in Religious Education named Robert Patch. I never took a class from him and didn’t know him well. But on a number of occasions he would substitute for whoever my religion teacher happened to be, so I sat through perhaps a half-dozen lessons with him during my time there.

I occasionally saw a publication by him, but he didn’t seem to be really prolific in print. My impression was that he devoted most of his energies to actual teaching. But I quickly learned that my perception of his publication record, whether accurate or not, had nothing to do with his preparation as a scholar and a teacher. He was very smart, very well read, and a lot like Nibley in that he liked to interact with students as if they were intelligent and prepared, even when they weren’t. No matter how obscure the issue or the article, he had read it and was prepared to discuss it. You couldn’t trip him up. I thought he was as impressive as hell.

He had an unusual practice that was uniquely his own. I’ve never seen anyone else do what he did. If someone asked a question, and he felt there wasn’t a really solid answer to the question, but only speculation, he would first move to the corner of the room before responding. He would always explain that when he taught from the corner, anything he said was to be understood as speculative, not as solid well established doctrine. He set this up so that he only had to offer this disclaimer once in words; then he was free to teach from either the center of the room or the corner, as he judged appropriate. This was his way to signal to his students a certain relative weight they should assign to his words.

In my own church teaching career, there have been times I’ve been asked questions on speculative subjects. Sometimes I’ve brushed the question off. Other times, though, rather than simply declining to respond at all, I’ve told the story of Robert Patch and his teaching from the corner. I then would deliberately move to the corner of the room and only then respond to the query. My impression is that this has always made a rather profound impression on the class. We do not often in our tradition make any effort to signal to our students when what we have to say is more or less well grounded.

This is a technique some of you may on occasion find useful in your own teaching, and I offer the memory of Brother Patch teaching from the corner in case it is an idea that any of you find useful in your own classrooms.

Comments

  1. I had an institute teacher who would do something similar. When his tie was hanging normally, what he said was to be construed as teaching from the center of the room. When he threw his tie over his shoulder, he was speculating.

    I can definitely see this as something I could incorporate in my teaching, both in church callings, and eventually, when I become a professor.

  2. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Very interesting. But with the quote in Pres. Monson’s First Presidency Message this month about discovering versus teaching, I wonder if Bro. Patch’s practice is a little unfair to students who can’t easily move to the corner when they want to signal that their response to what someone else has said is more speculation than settled doctrine. To be fair to Bro. Patch, the shift from teaching-centric to learning-centric classes had not yet occurred in church education when Kevin sat in on his lessons. But in spirit of allowing students to teach one another, and helping them to navigate the nuances of our doctrines and speculations, I would love to hear what kinds of rhetorical practices teachers of church lessons could encourage their students to use.

  3. Oh, man. I wish I’d read this _before_ I taught RS today!!

  4. Interesting…There are other professors at BYU who continue the practice, Russell Hansen, for instance, would always move to the corner when he was speculating.

  5. This was very common practice at my released-time seminary in the late 80′s. All the kids loved it, because at least we knew it’d be interesting.

  6. I often comment from the corner.

  7. A Voice from the Dust says:

    Nobody puts baby in a corner.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 7, love it!

    Others, that’s fascinating that his practice has been picked up by others than myself.

  9. Chris Henrichsen says:

    John C,

    There is a difference between teaching from the corner and being sent to the corner for poor behavior.

    I think it is all speculation. I guess the difference is that some of it is mine, and the rest is more well respected speculation.

    Thanks for sharing this Kevin. I will try to figure out a version of my own. I usually start by saying “Now I am going to soapbox a bit…”

  10. I had a teacher who would say, “Well, this is gospel according to [her name], I think…”.

  11. My husband used to do this when he taught Gospel Doctrine, he he would call it his “Opinion Corner” and acknowledge to the room that he was stepping into his “Opinion Corner.” He picked it up from a Seminary teacher in Denver. I think it is a great practice for a teacher.

  12. I’ve seen this practice a few times and even used it myself a couple times. I find that the class appreciates the honesty.

  13. When the class discussion migrates “to the corner”, isn’t one role of an instructor to help foster discussion and still help to signal the “quality” of the comments as a moderator? (While it would be entertaining to hold up point cards to “score” comments, that wasn’t what I had in mind.)

    In our high priests group (an interesting assortment of people who aren’t afraid to say what they think and argue from time to time), many commentors will self-moderate by either citing references or declaring their own view (or the one lawyer among us who will make up references to cite…)

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    My favorite teacher in Church settings used to reach toward the table, where her scriptures were lying open, and close them. I thought that was a pretty instructive image to choose.

  15. I’ve never heard of this..thoughI’ve had teachers who have made it clear one way or the other, i think the visual image is striking. Great idea…

  16. I would go to the corner when I taught Adult Sunday school when it was more my opinion, or a theory I had picked up in my various readings; but they should feel free to totally dismiss it if it did not fit in with their theology.

    I do not remember where I picked the habit up from, but I did attend BYU.

  17. Paul Stowell says:

    It has been 45 years since I took several courses from Robert Patch. He was, by far, the hardest teacher I had. One of his favorite techniques was to present a scriptural issue and then ask, “Okay, you Mormons, how do you answer that?” Speculation ran high and there were no corners as he would move all around the room but he demanded good reasoning and extensive preparation. He was the best.

  18. Earl B. says:

    Paul (No. 17),
    I would venture to guess it has been around 45 years for me also. I had Prof Patch for two New Testament classes. Hands down, the best of the best. Smart, compelling, masterful, tough… and taught with great dignity without any arogance.
    ETB

  19. liamorean says:

    My seminary teacher used to flip his tie over his shoulder when he was speculating or giving what was his opinion alone. I agree about the affect it had. It made me realize that speculation okay, even at times profitable, as long as it was clearly distinguished from well-accepted, canonized doctrines.

  20. Paul Hoskisson (religion prof at BYU) when answering questions that were speculative would go into the corner. Sometimes, when the answer were really speculative/non-doctrinal, he would not only stand in the corner but also squish himself into it.

    I always appreciated his visual reminder that something was not doctrinal.

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