Professor at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University employs art and humor to reach out to students
“I like what you just said. Thanks,” said Marc Assael, professor of thermophysical properties at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University, just before we ended our phone interview. I hadn’t said anything special, just that he had given us rare insight into a classroom where ingenuity, passion and humor still survive.
Assael is the man behind a video that recently went viral on the Internet. It shows him on the first day of the semester teaching a class of third-year chemical engineers. All of a sudden, a student sitting at the back of the room interrupts the class by talking loudly on her cell phone. When asked by the professor what all the fuss is about, she answers, “Romantic problems.” “What kind of problems?” the professor asks. “I’ll tell you, but because I’m embarrassed I’ll say it in another language,” she responds. To everyone’s surprise, she stands up and start singing an aria from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” and the student proves to be none other than acclaimed mezzo-soprano Kassandra Dimopoulou. As the room fills with this melody from the beautiful opera, the students look on, at first a bit ill at ease but gradually and visibly revealing their enthusiasm. At the end, they break out into loud applause.
This happening was organized by Assael as an icebreaker during the introduction of one of his more tedious courses. Physical Processes, he explained, explores “the basic principles governing the calculation methods applied in the preliminary design of fractionating columns, absorption, extraction and cooling towers.” What better way to liven it up than with the passionate song of the beautiful Gypsy from Seville?
The idea came to Assael about a year ago when he was at a bar where Dimopoulou sang the aria while mingling with the crowd.
“It was wonderful; she almost transported us to the time when the opera was written. I thought it would be interesting to do something like that in class,” Assael told Kathimerini.
The artist jumped at the invitation. In fact, the original plan was to let her husband, opera singer Philip Modinos, into the act, but the tenor had to drop out at the last minute.
“We had arranged it so that it would start with the couple having a row in class,” said Assael. “In the end, I was also in the dark. I saw her at the back of the class but I didn’t know what she would do. She improvised wonderfully. And when she sang, we all got chills.”
It wasn’t the first time that Assael had surprised his students in such a delightful manner.
“I’ve done all sorts of things. My classes are always interactive,” he said.
Once he walked into a risk assessment class and told the students that he was bored of teaching the same old material over and over, and had therefore prepared a video.
“I appear in the video, lecturing on the same material in a really boring way. The kids were half-asleep when the professor in the video – me, that is – turns to the real me and says, ‘Will the gentleman sit down?’”
The dialogue between the real Assael and the video Assael continued for about an hour, with the students howling with laughter by the end.
“It’s not just the material that matters in class,” he said. “You can’t inspire them 100 percent of the time, but if you manage to inspire them even 30 percent of the time then that’s a precious thing. I hear about colleagues who never step into a classroom and send their assistants instead, and that makes me mad. I haven’t missed a single hour of class in my 32 years of teaching.”
Ever since the “Carmen” video was posted online, his phone has been ringing nonstop. “All I wanted was a connection with my students,” he laughed.
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