One of the problems faced by teachers at any level is questions.

Very young children are full of questions – the problem is keeping a class from disintegrating into chaos. Somehow parents, school and adults in general manage to turn that questioning off, at least in the classroom. In teaching college courses, I found that it was very difficult to get students to ask any questions. And a good teacher relies on student questions, if only to provide feedback on whether he or she has gotten the point across.

I recall a math class at Harvard where the professor was totally stunned by the abysmal results of the first test. Most of us hadn’t had the least idea of what he was talking about, but were so confused we didn’t even know what to ask. If some of us had just spoken up and said “I don’t understand that,” he might have realized what we only understood in retrospect – he had not bothered to find out exactly what the preceding class had covered, and a large and essential chunk of the necessary background to what he was teaching had never been covered. In this case, I think we were all afraid of looking stupid in the eyes of the other students.

I’m not talking about huge lecture classes, of course. But in smaller groups, often with a graduate assistant, questions do need to be asked – and frequently are not. As a result, those who teach in college settings generally plan their lectures assuming there will not be many questions.

Many of our local OLLI classes, for adults over 50, are taught by college professors, often retired. These lecturers plan their courses as if we were college students, with a typical student’s reluctance to ask meaningful questions. It doesn’t work, at least not in Fairbanks. We older students are full of questions, especially when our instructors are active researchers of what they are teaching.

The final lecture of “The Mesozoic of Alaska” was supposed to cover marine reptiles and pterosaurs. Well, the marine reptile – an ichthyosaur discovered on the North Slope – was indeed covered, in the last five minutes of the two-hour class. I had to ask about the pterosaurs after class.

I think that Pat (who is not retired) intended to give a brief overview of what kinds of dinosaur fossils have been found in Alaska, followed by the story of the excavation of the ichthyosaur (which turned out to have co-discovered by Carl Benson, one of my dissertation advisors) and the trace fossils of pterosaurs. He passed around casts of fossils of numerous types of dinosaurs found along the Colville River, told stories of floating the Colville hunting for dinosaur bones in the thawing banks, and showed artists’ conceptions of the living beasts. And he had to field tons of questions.

I won’t go into the classifications of Saurischia and Ornithischia, you can look at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Here in Alaska, we had Edmontosaurus (a duck-bill) chowing down on the vegetation, accompanied (not always on the Colville) by ankylosaursThescelosaurus, hadrosaurs and Pachyrhinosaurus. They were eaten by large and small two-legged predatory dinosaurs: big-eyed Troodons, the Tryannosaurid Albertosaurus, and another small, pack-hunting killer, Sauromitholestes.

The pterosaurs? They were here, as shown by a trace fossil of the “hand” of one. Their bones are so delicate that it is no surprise fossils have not been found yet in Alaska, but they were here. At least there is no problem with their possible migration, which is still hotly debated for the land-dwelling dinosaurs.

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