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Nerds of Mizzou

Loving the class he's in

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Nov. 30, 2009
Robert Torres

Bobby Torres, a Kemper Award-winning professor of agricultural education, incorporates costumes, props and interpretative dance into his teaching methods. The yellow balls illustrate randomness, a key concept in his research methodology and statistics lessons.

“Show me the love!” Robert “The Bobby” Torres pleads, with drawn-out emphasis on the word “love,” to the amusement of graduate students in his evening class. Torres, a professor of agricultural education in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, uses the concept to teach a lesson on data collection.

Once again Torres manages to make a rather dry topic sexy, quite a feat when the lecture subject is research methods and analysis. “Show me the love. They’ll remember that,” he says.

And he’s right. Students who experience Torres’ teaching style inevitably collect his memorable sayings. In fact, former students have established a “Bobby Torres is my hero” Facebook page with tributes from students and lists of his sayings that become part of the Torres lore. Among the students’ all-time favorites: “He’s as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

Lotsa love

A concept Torres wants his class to absorb this evening is how showing the love — or, in professional terminology, using personalization techniques — can improve response rates on survey questionnaires.

Getting personal, he says, starts with using the survey subject’s name, so Torres models the technique by making eye contact and calling students by name. Remembering names on the spur of the moment sometimes becomes dangerous territory for him because when Torres is on a roll, his brain works faster than his mouth and names get jumbled.

Students cite examples of Taryn Dameron’s name becoming Tameron and Merit Badge Center morphing into Marriage Badge Center.

“He’s lovable with all his quirkiness,” says Justin Killingsworth, who is part of a student group that professes to be training to be just like him. 

The students good naturedly share nerdisms about their professor: about how they had to coach him not to button his shirt collar to the top, about how oblivious to the world he is when viewing data on his computer, about his penchant for wearing bowling shirts or about his gait — always in overdrive — that leaves students struggling for breath as they run to keep up with him.     

But at the same time, the students praise his ability to explain concepts, and they cite his national reputation in statistical analysis and research that attracted them to Mizzou.

“There is no one in the field who is more effective at teaching and mentoring students about the kind of research we do,” Professor Rob Terry says of his colleague. “He has a tremendous work ethic and is very dedicated to his work.”

Torres, who is nationally known in the field of research methodology, studies teaching techniques and data collection. He has presented workshops at national meetings, served on the research committee for the professional association and been on the review board for the Journal of Agricultural Education. This fall an Ohio State University study ranked Torres among the 15 most distinguished agricultural-education professors in the United States.

Memorable moments

Robert Torres dressed as a monk

For an undergraduate course on teaching agricultural subjects, Torres dresses as a monk to convey that lecturing, an instructional method predating textbooks, is only one of many ‘tools in our teaching toolbox.'

Led by Stacy Vincent, who nominated Torres for the Nerd of Mizzou honor, five doctoral students gather to discuss “The Bobby’s” memorable moments in class.

Vincent recalls the occasion when Torres became so excited about demonstrating the movement of statistical inferences among populations that — with body moving sideways gracefully and arms rotating in large circles — he did an “interpretative dance” across the front of the room. It was classic Torres.

In defense of the uninhibited original dance, Torres explains: “There’s a purpose behind everything I do. We can enjoy ourselves. I do silly things to make students feel at ease. They feel secure to express ideas without fear of being humiliated.”

On the night of the data-collection lecture, he dances again, this time with the walk of a stud muffin, knees semi-bent and arms moving locomotive style. All eyes in the room are on him as he dances out of sight of a robotic camera set up to record the class. The college gave up on recording Torres with a stationary camera after discovering he couldn’t stand still while lecturing, but even the robotic replacement has trouble following when he dances.

“I love how excited he gets about teaching,” says Misty Lambert. “It’s contagious.”

Once, when a student noticed that Torres erases white boards with up-and-down swipes instead of the more usual side-to-side motions, he asked why. It was an explanation any dancer understands: If you erase side to side, you’re shaking your booty to the class. There will be no shimmy performed at the front of Torres’ classroom.

What’s in your toolbox?

In complicated courses, if students are getting lost in the details, Torres offers tools to help them learn. He uses visual methods to illustrate a point, such as tossing a handful of balls in the air to demonstrate randomness. He begins his lecture on effective lecturing by striding into class dressed in a monk’s robe (OK; it’s a Halloween costume) to stress that when books were rare, the scribes had to spread knowledge orally.

“The quirky, funny stuff will make me remember,” says doctoral student Will Bird of Torres’ teaching methods. “He pulls things out of the air and puts them together for us.”

Torres’ refined skills brought him a coveted MU award in 2009, a William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence. Kemper awards, which are surprises to recipients, are announced when Chancellor Brady Deaton interrupts a class to present the $10,000 stipend. What usually follows is a stunned professor, an abbreviated class and a celebration.

Not with Torres. After the VIPs left, he resumed lecturing and kept the students an extra half hour. “No one ever does that after the award,” Vincent says. “They cancel class and go celebrate.”

Torres simply had more tools to offer and more love to show.

Nominate a nerd

Do you know a super-smart MU faculty member who excels in his or her field, is beloved by students and harbors a few delightfully nerdy eccentricities? Nominate your favorite nerd to be featured in Nerds of Mizzou, a monthly series on Mizzou Wire, at MizzouWire@missouri.edu.

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentOn CampusScience & TechnologySpecial Features & SeriesEducation

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012