Crawford Challenges Students to Take Risks

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If you’ve seen the replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin or the other structures created by Hugh Crawford’s classes that have decorated campus over the years, it’s not hard to believe that he’s not a fan of “pre-packaged” classes.         

“In my courses, I try to create a situation where students have to take an academic risk, by providing them with a problem and encouraging them, and giving them the freedom to come up with a creative way of solving it,” said Crawford, an associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture (LCC).

This approach has endeared Crawford to many students. In 2010, Crawford’s class embraced the challenge of building a scale replica of Thoreau’s cabin to the point that they continued working on the project months after the class had ended. Even students who weren’t in Crawford’s class asked to help with the project — which he welcomed.

This year, Crawford’s classes tackled projects such as replicating three historic structures (including a log cabin model of German naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich’s home) and creating a life-sized skeleton of “Moby Dick” laser-cut from plywood.  

Of course, encouraging students to take risks means that Crawford sometimes has to venture out onto a limb himself.  

“I can remember waking up in a cold sweat just before we began working on the Thoreau replica,” he said. “I didn’t know if we would really be able to cut down trees, haul them and build this house. But I’ve learned that students are capable of doing almost anything if you support them — so I had faith.”

Recently, The Whistle had an opportunity to learn more about Crawford and his time at Tech.

What did you want to be when you were a child?         
A veterinarian, but my undergraduate alma mater, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), didn’t offer a program in this area. So I became an English major. After earning my master’s degree, I spent a few years renovating houses — but was not a successful businessman — and decided to return to school.

What brought you to Georgia Tech?     
I spent about 10 years teaching at VMI, and when LCC started a degree program in science, technology and culture, I was asked to join the faculty at Tech.

Tell us about your current area of research.   
My focus has always been on the cultural studies of science and technology. I look at how humans interact with objects (such as an ax) and the cultural and historical implications of these interactions.

In addition to the projects we talked about earlier, what do you do to keep students engaged?
I like to find ways to get students to engage with the community through their coursework. I’ve had students do everything from plant trees on campus to help build homes for the homeless to work in community gardens. I think this approach is important because many Tech students really want to find productive ways to serve their community, and linking service to pedagogy can produce positive results.

What is your greatest challenge related to teaching, and how do you deal with it?
Tech students are accustomed to receiving clear directions and being told what every project and test is going to be worth. So some students initially have a difficult time adapting to my approach to teaching. However, most eventually accept that that’s not the way I operate.

Where is your favorite place to have lunch?
I’ve got to say Junior’s, even though it’s no longer. I would always order a cheeseburger and spicy fries. Even my kids grew up eating at Junior’s. It’s missed.  

Tell us something about yourself that others might not know.
For seven years, I’ve run a TOPSoccer program for athletes with disabilities, and we play every Sunday. All of my sons played soccer, and I coached when they were little. So this is a way to stay involved at the club and to keep my family involved.



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