Some professors would never think to put on a horned helmet and spontaneously sing in Italian to their students. For one professor, it’s just another method of engaging his students.
Michael McNamara, associate professor in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts, often uses unorthodox methods while teaching. Previous to teaching, he worked as a lighting designer for operas in various places including Toronto, London and Tel Aviv, perhaps lending to his flair for the dramatic. McNamara said he was drawn to teaching because he enjoys watching students develop and grow and “getting to know them as people.”
“I just had a couple of seniors who graduated this spring,” McNamara said. “I had to smile to myself going to their commencement (ceremony) and thinking about them when they first arrived here, how young and shy they were, and now looking at them as confident and professional as they are ... it’s really difficult to describe what a positive feeling that is.”
His involvement with the students is why Purdue chose him as the faculty lighting designer. Joel Ebarb, associate professor and chair of the theater department, looked back on McNamara’s first visit. Potential professors are instructed teach a class as a guest lecturer when they interview for a position. McNamara’s teaching style left a positive impression on Ebarb, who headed the search for the position.
“Some people talk at the students, some people talk only about themselves; some people are just not very engaging teachers,” Ebarb said. “But from the very beginning ... his sample lesson was really engaging. It was hands on (and) the students learned something that very first day.”
McNamara explained his methods of being engaging, which involve having the students do as much as possible during a class.
“I try to talk as little as possible and get (the students) out of their chairs and have them do things,” McNamara said. “A lot of what I try and make sure that they do is ... having them working in small groups (and) getting as much hands-on as we possibly can.”
During his first year at Purdue, McNamara began singing to his class during one of these hands-on activities. McNamara teaches lighting for stage, so his burst of song was a random event his students were unprepared for.
“We were doing projects based on opera arias (vocal solos) and somebody had brought the stereotypical Brunhilde helmet with the horns,” McNamara said. “Somebody gave me the hat so I, of course, put it on in the middle of class and started singing to them and they were just kind of blown away; they didn’t know what to make of me. I had a little bit of experience acting myself so when I get an opportunity to show off like that, I’ll do it.”
McNamara’s charisma has made him a student favorite and led to his receiving a teaching award his first year at Purdue. Six years later, he has continued to engage and mentor students and hopes to continue doing so for a long time.
“I just got tenure this spring,” McNamara said with a smile. “I’ll be around for a while.”