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Meetings With Remarkable Men

The Story of Professor Robert Gurland, Part 2 (see Part 1 here)

I was so excited yet frustrated sitting in that class. Didn’t these students know they were with a living legend? Why weren’t they hanging on his every word? It costs big money to attend NYU. Why was one student sleeping and another looking at dresses online and messaging on Facebook? Gurland was discussing the nature of evil – man’s inhumanity to man. On the chalk board were the names Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Duvalier. What the hell does it take to galvanize students?

I was following his presentation and completing some of his sentences in my mind. I was flying. This was education at its best. The man’s ability to communicate is brilliant, with a perfect meld of theater, anecdotes, insight, and passion, making the content accessible and relevant. No wonder he is a superstar educator with the highest student ratings, a cabinet full of letters (see here), and has been referred to as an icon for educators.

I understand we live in a world of information and sensory overload. However, I would find it extremely disappointing to be a man like Professor Robert Gurland, with all of his accolades, and lose to Facebook. When I expressed my outrage in my second interview in his office, he laughed and said, “When I look at those Apples, I know that they’re looking at a porn site on the other side.”

The man for this job needs a tough skin and a realization that in this world, you often lose to competing interests in the classroom. Who better to weather this storm of our current times than a tough, New York City Bronx-born Jew grounded in reality and who knows how to take a beating?

I had taken a class with Robert Gurland circa 1970. Even at 9 AM, his classes were packed with sizes at one time of as many as 450 students. Historically his classes have been so popular that it became a problem in the Philosophy department – no one has wanted to take other courses. In the late 1990s, a part-time employee who was also an NYU student was raving about a professor. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was the very same Professor Gurland, who was still going strong in his unique style of teaching and making impressions with his indelible stamp. As the result of a recent inquiry, I discovered Gurland was still teaching at 77 years old.

I obtained his phone number and had a brief phone conversation – I was amazed that in spite of the fact that he has had over 25,000 students, he remembered my name and the class I was in – Practical Reasoning. I arranged an interview and to sit in on two of his classes. He was extremely gracious and permitted any manner of recording I wanted. I came armed with cameras and video and voice recorders. I interviewed Professor Robert Gurland twice in his office at 726 Broadway, once before and once after the two classes I attended. These were his last classes of the semester. I recorded both classes on video and 78 minutes of our dialog in his office.

We met in the lobby at 8:30 AM. His office door is open, but Gurland values his privacy, and I appreciated the privilege of spending time with him. As we entered his private office, I felt electricity in the air – I had never been with Gurland outside the classroom. The ensuing conversation was charged.

In our conversation, I learned many things I did not know about this superstar of university teaching. We discussed his working class roots, his growing up in the Bronx, and his attendance at the Bronx High School of Science, at the time an experimental school. At one point, Gurland showed me a photo of himself at 20 years old as a professional trumpet player. He recounted the litany of jazz legends he played with, such as Krupa and Dorsey. A small trumpet hangs from his neck. We discussed his personal life briefly. Gurland is married with one son who is a full-time professional musician. When younger, Gurland dabbled in photography and won two Eastman contests.

Now a philosophy professor at NYU, Gurland has served as chair of the department. However, I was also surprised to learn that his first educational degrees were in mathematics, eventually culminating in a Ph.D and a tenured professorship of mathematics at Long Island University.

Do I over inflate Gurland’s achievements and charisma? Not at all. Gurland has taught at many universities and has won best teacher awards at all of them. He has been awarded NYU’s Golden Dozen Teaching Award numerous times and was the youngest person to get the alumni association great teaching award. He holds three MA degrees and two PhDs.

For a man like Robert Gurland, these are but milestones on a road that many others have taken but to a destination few will ever reach. There were a few students who lingered after class to say goodbye and express their appreciation for this great educator.

I am immersed in technology and spend hours online. I recorded Professor Gurland’s classes using two video camcorders, a digital voice recorder, and professional DSLR camera. But these are only tools. I was not distracted from Gurland’s presentation and the special things only a relationship with a human being can bring to our world. I salute him on giving such spirited and impassioned lectures, even to empty classrooms filled with so many students preoccupied with something or someone else. I am having a hard time this morning deleting those images of dresses and Facebook from my mind…

15 Responses to Meetings With Remarkable Men

  1. Amazing man!
    I guess exams were over… But no excuse for those students' behavior!

  2. nice…

  3. Anyone who looks like Joe Walsh is good by me…

  4. Excellent!

  5. We all multi-task and delude ourselves into thinking that we can do four things at the same time. Really, we neither hear the professor nor really focus on the dress or the porn. Focusing is becoming a lost art.

  6. Bravo, I'm feeling your passion in this post. Any chance you can add the videos of those classes? I am so eager to hear this fascinating guy again after all these years.

  7. I took 4 philosophy classes from Gurland from maybe '93 to '95 while at NYU. Logic (my first, during a summer session, to fulfill a math credit (I was failing Calculus)), Ethics, Ancient Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. The last 3 were full semesters taken during the fall/spring school years. I am a musician, studied music at NYU. What Gurland taught me, other than course work, was HOW TO TEACH (maybe be able to explain an idea or a concept 4 or 5 different ways). His lectures were excellent, and on point, BUT, if anyone really wanted to go a bit deeper…..they should pay hellish attention when he seems to go "off topic." That's where some real gold was mined. And, I would hang out after class just to talk to Gurland about damn near anything. Philosophy, music, his time as a kid playing trumpet, his son, etc. And, I used to get in a hellishly long line to see Gurland during office hours. He always had time for, seemingly, everybody. One of the best teachers I've ever had. His lessons speak to me still to this day.

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  9. I took many classes with Professor Gurland at NYU- both as an undergraduate and in continuing ed. My favorite class of all time, Philosophy and Literature, remains one of my brightest memories from my years at college. In fact, it took a philosophy professor to open my eyes -a lit major- to the brilliance of William Faulkner. I consider myself really fortunate to have head those experiences, especially the ones involving 20-minute long tangents on topics including baseball, jazz, growing up in NY, family dynamics, West Point, you name it, we heard it. And we listened, for the most part, with rapt attention. He wrote me a letter of recommendation for law school.
    I’m glad to hear that he is still as active as always.

  10. I took Gurland this semester (Fall 2012) and… just couldn’t get into him. Maybe he’s thinking on a level too advanced for me to comprehend or is losing his touch over the years or something. In any case, I found his discussions meandering and sort of random. He obviously has passion for philosophy, but in my class he just spent a lot of time talking about himself.. it’s interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s something I’d expect from my grandpa, not a teacher I’m paying -loads- of money to learn from.

    great person, -lovely- soul, I got nothing from his class at all except a good grade.

  11. I took Gurland’s practical Reasoning class sometime in 1971 thru 1974. along with many other Gurland courses. I used to joke that my Major was Biology and my Minor was Gurland. His delivery was classic. I still remember snippets about his smart alec son that he would occasionally mention. When I looked up his name on the internet I knew he would still be around.

  12. Conrad Pollack says:

    I had Professor Gurland in my senior year at NYU, and he was the best professor I had there, if not ever. One memory that stands out was that his class was the first I had the morning after John Lennon was murdered. He spent the first 30 minutes at least just discussing the event, and it was readily apparent how upset he was–as were most of us on that terrible morning in December 1980. Even an immature, inexperienced kid from Brooklyn like me could tell that he was a special man and teacher.

  13. Conrad,
    He was memorable. It was, however, incomprehensible to me on my visit to his class for this story how many of his students would prefer shopping online or Facebook to his class. In my interview with him, he was incredibly tolerant and jovial regarding the whole phenomenon. He has adapted to the times and new environment.

  14. Brian:
    I had been wracking my brain to remember Prof Gurland’s name for the longest time (symptom of early Alzheimers, I imagine), or more likely since my daughter enrolled in the Tisch School last year. I only found it yesterday when I came across my 1981 NYU yearbook. I then immediately googled him and found your article. I immediately emailed it to my daughter, now a sophomore there, and to my wife. Even though she’s in Performing Arts, I’ve insisted that she enroll in 1 of his courses asap. I’m so happy to hear that he’s still around, and that he’s still teaching. I really had no idea of his age–in fact, I thought he was older. I’m going to try to get an opportunity to go and visit him 1 of these days.
    Re your comments on today’s students, as well as how our professor copes, no surprise there. Nothing ever fazed him, other than Lennon’s death–which I guess is why that particular class stands out so vividly in my memory. There’s just too much stimulation out there for today’s kids to avoid. I read some current students’ comments and it’s truly unfortunate that so many of them are unable to appreciate such a great teacher, and a great guy. (Btw, he gave me a great recommendation for grad school).

  15. Stephen R. Rolandi says:

    I, too, had Professor Gurland for Pratical Reasoning at NYU in the Fall of 1972. In addition to my double major in Political Science and History, I minored in Philsophy and had him again for ethics and Modern Philosophy. He is/was a wonderful teacher, and I considered him one of the best professors that I had at NYU.

    Ironically, I am now teaching full-time in the Bachelor’s and MPA degree programs at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, C.U.N.Y. after a long and succesful career in government with New York State and New York City and the not-for-profit sector as an executive. Professor Gurland is an inspiration to all of us!

    Stephen R. Rolandi

    NYU, College of Arts & Science ’76
    NYU, GPA/Wagner Graduate School of Public Service ’80

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