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.