A Woelfel Ballad

By JOE KONZE JR.
On February 7, 2012

  • Dr. Joseph Woelfel, a professor in the communication department, boasts a teaching style unlike a traditional lecturer – he has no curriculum and doesn’t give out typical grades. Courtesy of Joe Woelfel

 

Dr. Joseph Woelfel writes two questions on the board for his midterm. He wants his students to first tell him what they've learned in lecture and discussion, and then tell him what they have learned from readings posted online.

His midterms do not have a grade distinction. The first well-done paper that Woelfel reads receives 100 points and is used as a comparison for the papers that follow.

Any paper written better following this is given higher than 100 points.

"I personally prefer no grading system at all," Woelfel said. "I would prefer a European grading system where people other than the teacher grade your work. I feel that the teacher should be on the students' side."

The catch is this: students are not exactly getting 100 points or 1,000 points – it is just a scale to measure if they get the material or not. The person with the most points gets a pink bag filled with two old chapter books.

"I love to teach, but I don't like to be in the classroom," Woelfel said. "Giving out prizes is a tradition; it keeps the students interested in the course."

Woelfel, a professor in the communication department with his own Wikipedia page, has dedicated his life to the study of human behavior and interactions. He has participated in numerous projects that help measure the media's effect on human behavior.

Through teaching and research, Woelfel has found a way to help students gain knowledge and remember what that they have learned.

As a child, Woelfel had an interest in learning science and mathematics. He had uncles who shared the same interest, and they helped point Woelfel in the direction he wanted to go.

"I was always interested in science and electronics," Woelfel said. "Two of my uncles, after World War II on the GI Bill, had both taken correspondence courses in electronics and they gave me all of their textbooks and things like that. I worked my way through them and found them interesting."

He started to wonder how science and mathematics could be applied to the study of human behavior.

Woelfel graduated from Buffalo's Canisius College in 1962 and went on to the University of Wisconsin, whose scientifically oriented approach he described as the right fit for him. He received a Ph.D. in sociology and a minor in philosophy.

From there, Woelfel went on to teach at UB's fellow SUNY university center, the University of Albany, where he founded an institute for studying information science with colleagues who also had backgrounds in sociology and political science.

"I became the first director of research of that institute," Woelfel said. "The group had a deep connection to the Rockefeller Institute, so I ended up being appointed a fellow of the Rockefeller Institute."

Woelfel joked that he had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with a lot of people smarter than him at the institute.

After leaving Albany, Woelfel came to UB, where he served as professor and chair of the communication department from 1989 to 1995.

As a research associate at Wisconsin, Woelfel did research under Archibald Haller. Woelfel and his colleague, Dr. Edward L. Fink – a communication professor at the University at Maryland – explored the "role relationships" of "significant others" in the lives of high school students. Woelfel was the project's director.

"Initially, we worked on that project together," Fink said. "We did a lot of data analysis for Professor Haller. We did a lot of interviews interviewing high school students, and we both learned a lot from that."

Following the research, the data would serve as an explanation for a theory both Fink and Woelfel would be notable for. That theory is the "Wisconsin Model" – a theory that measures the aspirations of high school students and what they want to do after high school. It attempts to describe and explain the various economic, social, and psychological determinants of an individual's social mobility.

Woelfel's intention is to teach students so that they remember taking his course and remember the knowledge they have learned, rather than simply memorizing facts for an exam.

"No, I don't find my teaching styles to be conventional," Woelfel said. "I do feel, however, that you have to give the student an opportunity to learn."

Fink thinks Woelfel's teaching styles are effective.

"He's very intense," Fink said. "He has a strong background in philosophy and understanding of science. He used these to always advance in questions of importance. He is very good at getting his students involved in his teaching."

But, why does Woelfel stand by his unique style of teaching?

"If you really want to do something that is worthwhile to the students, you have to do something that influences the way that they think," Woelfel said.

 

Email: news@ubspectrum.com


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