March 14, 2011

“Puzzled!” CWRU’s SAGES Students Piece Together Solutions

Bernard Jim Puzzle Class
Students in Bernard Jim's SAGES class work on jigsaw
puzzles to help stretch the mind.

Puzzled about that homework assignment? So are 17 students in Bernard Jim’s “Puzzled” seminar at Case Western Reserve University as they face some tough mind-bending teasers of logic, coding and more.

Jim’s course was named one of the quirkiest classes on any campus by Metro Newspapers in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

His students learn what characteristics differentiate a puzzle from a mystery or a game. As examples of mystery in literature, students read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug.” The art of M.C. Escher and the films Pi by Darren Aronofsky and Memento by Christopher Nolan can be puzzling, too.

“Like puzzles, they demand more work from their audience, but they reward the effort,” Jim explained.

Jim finds mindbenders in science, math, literature and psychology—just about any subject that relies on patterns or series that must be deciphered or decoded.

Like his students, Jim is hooked on puzzles and does one or two New York Times crosswords a day. Games were big pastimes for the Jim family. His mother always did the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, and Jim would see if he could fill in the blank spaces his mother left. He said it made him realize just how much he didn’t know.

Students working on puzzles
Students from a variety of majors meet three times per
week for the Puzzled class.

Jim’s class buzzes with activity as students explore the culture and history of all types of puzzles—logical, mathematical, jigsaw, crossword, cipher-based and coded puzzles.

He says an important emphasis in the class is asking students to confront something that puzzles them, which they make the subject of their research project.

The class meets three times a week, with Fridays dedicated to a “Puzzle Challenge” in which students take turns offering the group something to solve. Students stay long after class ends to find a solution, he said.

Because puzzles cross disciplines, the class is ideal for teaching students from various majors, who are required to take SAGES courses as part of the university’s undergraduate curriculum. The seminars focus on developing speaking, writing and critical thinking skills in classes with 17 or fewer students. Most of the classes have an offbeat topic and tap the expertise of the SAGES instructor, many faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences and professional schools.

“These interesting topics are worthy subjects of scholarly study by our students because they illuminate important aspects of human nature and society,” Peter Whiting, director of SAGES and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, said.

“When students find a class interesting and fun, whether on one of these topics or on another topic, it leads to deep engagement with the material—more self-directed reading, more conversations and richer papers,” Whiting said.

“I want the 50 minutes we are together to be noisy from all the talking and laughing,” Jim said. “If you only hear one voice coming from my seminar room, you know something has gone horribly wrong.”

By the end of his class, he hopes students recognize that “puzzles are everywhere once you recognize them as such.”

Posted by: Emily Mayock, March 14, 2011 08:58 AM | News Topics: Teaching

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