Professor blazes a trail to find the best learning

Luke Reinsma recently retired from Seattle Pacific University, where he worked as Professor of Medieval Literature since 1986. His approach to teaching has inspired generations of students, including Melody Joy Fields.

It was Melody’s freshman year at Seattle Pacific University, and as she says, “I didn’t know anyone — or anything.” She was taking a class and a teaching assistant asked her if she’d met Dr. Reinsma yet. “You MUST meet Dr. Reinsma,” the TA told her.

“She walked me up to Luke’s office — completely book-lined walls, classic professor’s office—and he immediately invited me to come in, sit down, and tell him about myself.”

The traditional professor/student dynamic had always bothered Luke. From early in his career he had tried to find ways to bridge that gap. He felt that if professors and students could talk to and learn about each other as equals, the outcomes would be better for everyone.

His first approach to teaching was a simple one: by getting to know his students as individual people, he felt they’d open up to him, enabling them to learn more and understand better. He spent more than half of his time talking with his students to learn about them and their backgrounds. And more often than not, it happened outside of the classroom.

As Luke puts it, “I’m not sure the best learning happens inside a classroom, so I make sure to leave the classroom behind and change the context now and then.” Often that meant one-on-one office hours, meetings at the local coffee shop — even organized group hikes in the coastal forests.

Only after he’d gotten to know each student would he tackle the essays they’d written for his class.

Melody recalled learning a lesson from Luke the first time she met him to get feedback on an essay.

“He made me realize that you never know what’s going on in students’ lives. They don’t always come to class ready to learn — I certainly didn’t. Only after he’d really figured out who I was and what I was bringing to the classroom every day did we discuss my essay.”

His dedication would be inspiring in any person but it’s exceptional in a teacher.

— Melody Joy Fields, Adjunct Professor

With the professor/student hierarchy broken down, Luke would often write as much feedback on the papers as content Melody had written. His responses delved deeply into her opinions and ideas, which he would always value over grammar or grades. She responded well to this mutual respect.

“Luke excelled at finding something incredible rather than only seeing problems,” says Melody. “He always managed to find at least one elegant sentence so that I left his office knowing I could do it. His dedication would be inspiring in any person, but it’s exceptional in a teacher.”

That empathy and desire to find something beautiful in every essay also gave Melody the confidence to begin the revision process.

“He’d find a passage I’d written and say, ‘That’s ordinary. What’s extraordinary about this?’ And that taught me what revision is all about. It’s rethinking and revisioning what it is you really want to say, and saying it in the best way possible.”

Now a professor herself, Melody credits Luke with inspiring her to become a teacher.

“I didn’t know I was going to become a teacher. Certainly not a professor. I didn’t think I was smart enough. But I really wanted to be just like Luke. I wanted to read amazing stories, find incredible moments, and help others see that. To have someone take the time to see the world with you and give you fresh eyes — that’s what Luke did.”

Melody also credits Luke with her approach to teaching.

“Luke is why I teach the way I do. My experience as a student was so much more about a relationship, and not just about passing along information or skills. Yes, teaching is about skill building, but the best way to learn a skill is to see it modeled in front of you. And I saw the most valuable skills modeled by Luke every time we spoke.”