Instructor may not speak softly, but he does carry a big stick
By Joshua Wood
Cartoon by Antonio Castandeda and Thomas Krewson
“He’s loud. He loves to hit things with rulers. He loves writing. He helps as much as he can.”
Morgan Bartelmez-Forster, a second-year Chemeketa Early College student, is not alone in his summation of writing instructor Karl Meiner.
Many of Meiner’s students mention the same attributes.
“I don’t get the sense of falling asleep in his class. It’s always exciting,” student Sierra Silva says.
Student Avan Bamhar says, “I love Karl’s class. It’s a must-take.”
And student Josiah Hall says, “I think he has a way of explaining his material … that makes it sound interesting. He makes it fun, at the same time not detracting from the material.”
Meiner has been teaching writing classes at Chemeketa for eight years, although he’s been an instructor for 17 years.
Before coming to Chemeketa in 2007, Meiner worked for The Portland Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College.
“No question, that absolutely helped me,” he says.
“We worked in groups of instructors as facilitators to have conversations about what are the best ways to reach … students. We did a lot of work … encouraging students to go beyond the classroom as learners.”
Meiner subsequently applied for a position at Chemeketa’s Woodburn campus. But Susan Murray, one of the college’s deans, hired him to work at the Early College program, which allows students to gain dual high school and college credit while attending Chemeketa.
Meiner says that Murray then re-taught him how to teach.
“She is the best teacher I’ve ever seen in my life. She is a genius,” he says of Murray.
Murray is happy to return the compliment.
“He is the most accomplished instructor I’ve worked with in my 40 years of teaching. He cares deeply about students and helps them distinguish themselves as learners through analysis and inquiry. I’ve seen the electricity of learning ripple through classes he teaches. Karl is remarkable,” she says.
Meiner says that in the first class he taught at Chemeketa, he picked up one of his trademark teaching elements: the ruler.
“The truth of the matter is I was so freaking nervous,” he says. “I didn’t consciously bring one from home. There was one lying around and I just picked it up.”
Ever since, Meiner says, he always teaches with the aid of a ruler.
“It was like this nice extension of what you were trying to accomplish in the classroom. … I picked it up that first day, and I could never put it down,” he says.
The ruler, his students agree, is an attention-getter.
It’s also a subject that comes up a great deal.
“He gets so excited that he breaks rulers,” Silva says.
Fellow English instructor Kevin Olsen says, “I started noticing he was doing this weird thing with rulers and yardsticks, where he was always banging them on the table or breaking them.”
This element of his teaching was so pervasively known that he says he was given a yardstick to use a few years ago by the current dean of the Early College.
The yardstick lasted for only a short while, however.
“I found the yardstick way too much. I literally scared some kids to the verge of tears. Others were like, ‘Dude, I have total traumatic stress syndrome.’ So I try to limit my use of anything over twelve inches,” he says, prompting him to return to a standard wooden ruler.
Broken rulers are quickly replaced.
“I’ve had students try to give me plastic ones and metal ones over the years,” he says. “I don’t like them. I like the good old-fashion wood ones. They’ve got the best grip, give, and balance – the best sound.”
Avan Bamhar, one of Meiner’s students, says he enjoys the idea that if anyone has a tendency to nod off, “right at that moment where they’re dreaming about something beautiful, he smacks the ruler down on the projector and it wakes everybody up.”
Another of Meiner’s pervasive tendencies is to yell in class.
“He yells, but it’s not like a scary yell. It’s like an excitement,” Silva says. “It’s like you’re participating in the class and not sitting down and on your cell phone or trying to go to sleep or anything because he’s so loud. It’s a good type of loud. It helps you stay focused.”
Instructor Olsen, who sometimes sits in on Meiner’s classes, says, “Like any student who has his class for the first time, I jumped a few times because he just randomly yelled.”
Nicole Berg, another WR122 student, says, “Getting a 9:30 class and him screaming things randomly – it definitely wakes you up.”
Meiner often does things to switch up his class and keep it lively, Bartelmez-Forster says.
“For the midterm, we got to dress up and we got extra credit,” he says.
Hall says one of his favorite Meiner stories arose from such an occasion.
“We were going over logical fallacies. Somebody brought up the witch scene from Monty Python, so Karl pulled that up on YouTube and had us watch it. We were looking at the logical inconsistencies in the videos.”
Meiner doesn’t think he is alone in his eccentricities.
“Writing instructors are all a little crazy,” he says.
Olsen says that while the loud voice, ruler destruction, and spontaneity have entertainment value, they also serve a teaching purpose – one of which he has incorporated into his own teaching style.
“I like that he raises his voice every now and then … makes it so it’s not just the same voice over and over again,” he says.
“He’s got a classroom that is loose, and that’s one of the things that I think I have learned from Karl and I think that students appreciate about Karl. He doesn’t take himself seriously, and he doesn’t ask that the students take themselves seriously, but that you take the work seriously. I think that dynamic in the classroom is very important, and I think that’s one of his defining traits.”
The students also appreciate Meiner’s teaching skills.
“I think Karl is the kind of teacher who really cares about his students and wants to see them all succeed,” Silva says.
Berg says, “He’s definitely very difficult; he’s a good teacher though. He’s very thorough in what he teaches.”
Students say that his passion for writing and his ability to impart that passion to his students contributes to his teaching success.
Silva says, “It makes you feel like you should do better. And then when you do, he encourages you and instead of putting you down, he points out all the good things about it and then the things that you need to fix.
“He’s different. He stands out from all the boring teachers. When I think back, I don’t remember what teachers I took for what classes. But I remember him. He made an impact on school. He made an impact on my college experience.”
Sometimes student appreciation spills out into the parking lot.
Meiner mentions one notable incident in 2008 that took place on the final day of the term.
“They covered my Honda Element, the entire thing, in sticky notes,” he says. “I came out of class and not only was it covered from end to end and top to bottom in sticky notes, but they had written something on each sticky note. I tried to get most of them off, but I was cruising up I-5 trailing sticky notes behind me.”
Meiner says his passion partially arises from the belief that what he teaches is important.
“I believe that all students need to take control of their writing because writing is power,” he says. “We use our words to fashion our thoughts. The more clearly one defines their thinking, the more precisely their ideas are manifest into the world.
“Not many of our students will write for a living, but they will all have to write to further their lives.”
Olsen says, “Even though Karl is a humble person, he’s a hell of a teacher. I always tell my high school students, ‘If you’re going to transition into college, you have to take writing from Karl Meiner.’ ”
Meiner believes that he owes a great deal to Chemeketa’s Early College program and the individuals who work there.
“They are, by light-years, the most dedicated, talented team I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “That starts with our dean, Abby Hoffar, and extends to the entire staff and every other teacher in the program – just brilliance in motion.”
Meiner’s final take?
“I think teaching here is the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me. Chemeketa is just an amazing place. I think I have the best job in the Early College program – the most awesome position. I truly do literally love what I do.”