Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

Still fine-tuning his lessons

Professor Art Svenson is celebrated at a reception in honor of his national distinguished teaching award. (Photo by Ralph Alswang)

Art Svenson, the David Boies Professor of Government at the University of Redlands, has a secret he’s finally ready to tell.

“One of my professors in graduate school visited an early teaching experience of mine; after the class, he quietly told me that I should think about doing something else.”

To any Bulldog who has ever taken his class, the story is so unlikely it will sound like fake news.

“Apparently I was incoherent, and I misspelled a couple of words on the board,” he adds. Luckily, the discouraged Svenson didn’t give up. “I resolved to turn it around, so I just kept trying. I decided to bring into class what I thought was meaningful and not all that I had learned in grad school. So I walked back to the classroom and tried it differently.”

Close to four decades later, he’s still coming back.

Along the way, he has collected more than a few accolades for his teaching: the 1992 and 2013 Mortar Board Professor of the Year Award (with more than a dozen honorable mentions) and the University’s 1983, 1986, and 1997 Outstanding Teaching Award. His innovative teaching methods have won him two Fulbright Scholar grants in China—in 2011 to Renmin University in Beijing, and in 2016 to Sichuan University in Chengdu. And that’s not to mention the U of R’s Research Award, Centennial Award for Outstanding Service, Armacost Award for Faculty Service to Alumni, and Town and Gown’s Award of Distinction.

Most recently, in August Svenson accepted one of the highest honors an American professor can receive in his field: the American Political Science Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

Front-row seats

Svenson grew up in Fresno, California, where his father was a professor in the political science department at Fresno State College. As a child, he wanted to become a pilot, or a violinist, or lawyer. Two constitutional law professors—William Kolstad at Fresno State during his undergraduate studies and C. Herman Pritchett at University of California, Santa Barbara during graduate school—made such an impact on Svenson that he decided: “Teaching is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Constitutional law, which Svenson considers the very fabric of American government, sustains his passion for teaching. “There’s a real consequence to what our Supreme Court does [in our lives],” he says. “The cases are packed with human interest stories, and the issues and arguments are enormously engaging.”

That passion has grown alongside his regard for U of R students, and Redlands, his home for 38 years: “Our students are very intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated. They’re future-oriented—I love this about them. They think about tomorrow, which makes them more impressive today. Most of all, they’re just plain nice people. We get along great, and they’ve made me.” He adds, “In class, we discuss and challenge each other over legal issues and arguments—and it’s always been a great pleasure. We argue, we laugh, every now and then we cry, and when we leave, we part friends for life.”

Malie Minton ’20 first encountered Svenson via his Introduction to American Government class. “As a first-year, if you are interested in anything related to political science, Art is talked about a lot,” she says. Minton and her friends wanted to make sure they got front-row seats for Svenson’s class, so they all arrived 30 minutes early. Minton proudly states she has kept the front row, middle aisle seat for each class she has with him.

Svenson’s classes cover in-depth content, and they are tough, she says: “He consistently pushes you to think critically, apply what you’ve learned throughout the semester, and formulate your own opinions. These lessons are not something that you ever stop utilizing—in or out of the classroom.”

Noah Kaufman ’16 agrees. “Art’s deeply incisive mind made me question many of my beliefs, and he did so in a way that made me unafraid to critique my own fundamental beliefs.” 

And despite his legendary status, it is Svenson’s humanity that makes him an extraordinary teacher. Kaufman says, “As my academic adviser, Art helped me navigate arguably the most important question with which we are all presented: ‘What do you want to do with your time on Earth?’ I know that I am not alone; Art must have guided thousands of students to help them see how they wanted to direct their lives.”

‘Chalk-dust-flying dives’

A few years ago, Professor Renée Van Vechten watched another professor receive the Distinguished Teaching Award. “Immediately, it made me think of nominating Art, because I can’t think of another person on the planet who is more qualified to receive this award. He’s legendary on our campus, and he ought to have that reputation nationally.”

She brought the idea to the rest of the Political Science Department, where the group worked to nominate Svenson without his knowledge. They commandeered Svenson’s teaching evaluations and found in every category—from motivation and mentoring to effectiveness in helping students learn and course management and design—his scores were nearly perfect. With help from Alumni and Community Relations, testimonies from more than 60 students, colleagues, and alumni were compiled into a thick binder—letters of enthusiastic support that spoke to Svenson’s extraordinary level of dedication as a teacher and mentor as well as his deep impact on his students.

“What makes Art an ongoing favorite on campus is his extraordinary exuberance in the classroom,” says Nancy S. Wiens ’88. “He’s well-known for chalk-dust-flying dives at a particular point he wants to highlight on the board, all the while raising and lowering his impassioned voice in ways that advanced dramatists would envy, keeping everyone’s attention rapt.”

The performative aspect of Svenson’s classes make him—and the subject matter—even more memorable. This he credits to playing the violin professionally for 50 years. (Svenson was the principal second violin with the Redlands Symphony for more than 35 years.) “You can’t play music and not be moved passionately about what you play,” he says. “When I’m inside an orchestra making music, it reminds me of what a good classroom requires—prepare, prepare, prepare, then perform.”

Svenson compares teaching a good court case to playing a good symphony: “You want to go back to it again and again,” he says. “When I walk into my classroom for the 39th time this year, I will talk about a court case called Marbury vs. Madison. But it will not be the 39th time I will have taught that case. It will be the first, because my students will wrestle with this case, ask me questions, and make observations I have never heard before.”

The highest standards

The American Political Science Association has about 10,000 members from 100 countries around the world, yet it honors only one each year with the Distinguished Teaching Award. The award has been given to only a handful of people; it was established to honor those who exemplify the highest standards of the profession. (Read excerpts from letters in support of Svenson’s nomination for the honor.)

Having received it, Svenson says people may think now is the perfect time to retire, say to settle into a quiet life with his wife, Nancy Svenson, who is associate vice president for enrollment management at the U of R, and 15-year-old daughter, Elle. (Their oldest daughter, Cece, died of leukemia at the age of 9 in 2012.)

But, as he sits in his office beneath a wall of postcards former students have sent from all over the world, nothing could be further from his mind. Classical music streams from his computer; books on the writings of the Supreme Court line the shelves; and mementos of a four-decade teaching career are displayed throughout.

“Why have I been at Redlands for 38 years? It’s a beautiful campus. I’m surrounded by outstanding colleagues and I have the most wonderful students. … After I got this award, it quickly dawned on me that this is really about the inspired and inspiring University of Redlands students, and this University, which is devoted unambiguously to teaching excellence. So congrats to them.”

His mementos include a shirt with “F*** the final! We don’t need no damn test” emblazoned on it, worn as part of an early morning mock protest in front of his home in 1993 by his students studying a free speech case. (He loved it and took his students out to coffee afterward.) In his cabinet is a stack of old-fashioned grading notebooks (“I can look up the grades of every student I’ve ever had”), and a whole shelf of index cards—again, one for every student since 1981.

“I still get nervous about going into class,” Svenson admits. It’s one of the reasons he is certain he has to keep on teaching. The others include his classroom tools—chalkboard and chalk—and his love for back-to-school shopping. “The day I’m not nervous, or when the classroom is cluttered with technology, or when I don’t care about a new back-to-school shirt, then I’ll know it will be time to hang it up.”

Learn more about studying political science at the University of Redlands.