Pro­fes­sor at Thes­sa­loniki’s Aris­to­tle Univer­sity em­ploys art and hu­mor to reach out to stu­dents

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

“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.

Over the past 18 years, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­earthed 15 struc­tures.

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