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He spends between four and six hours preparing each lecture, laying out what he will do and say, down to where he needs to place pieces of chalk in the tray so he does not waste time searching for them.
He gets his best ideas while jogging, so on the day before he lectures, he doesn't wear headphones. They make it harder to concentrate.
And although he has been teaching the same course for decades, he rethinks what he says each year, searching for a better way to help students learn.
Meet James Bonk, founding father of the chemistry course fondly known as "Bonkistry," director of undergraduate studies in chemistry, tennis coach, teacher to more than 30,000 undergraduates during his 43 years at Duke - and the latest recipient of the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Distinguished Teaching Award, given each year to outstanding teachers in Trinity College.
"Jim Bonk has had a tremendous influence on his students, and on the department," said Michael Montague-Smith, associate director of undergraduate studies. "He created an environment in which people really care about undergraduate education."
This semester is Bonk's last at the helm of general chemistry, and on Wednesday Bonk became the second member of the Duke community to have his "jersey number" retired this year. During a surprise party thrown by his colleagues, university President Nannerl O. Keohane presented Bonk with jerseys numbered 11 and 12 - the official course numbers of the introductory sequence he made famous.
"It's hard to imagine anyone in the history of the university who has interacted with more students and had more impact than Jim Bonk," said Steve Craig, a 1991 Duke graduate who is now on the faculty as an assistant professor of chemistry. "He's been uncommonly committed to undergraduate education. He really deserves this award. My only caveat is that I think they should name it after him."
Administrators estimate that more than 30,000 students have passed through his introductory courses over the past four decades. A quick survey of last weekend's reunions turned up scores of Bonkistry alumni, and even those who blamed Bonk's Friday quizzes for "an entire year of ruined Thursday nights" gave him credit for his dry sense of humor, clear lecturing style and dedication.
"Bonk was an amazing teacher," said Sean O'Neill, a 1981 Duke graduate. "Sometimes I try to teach my son chemistry, and I tell him about this great guy at Duke who taught me everything I know. I still get nightmares of waking up for a Dr. Bonk test not prepared, though."
"Dr. Bonk was an excellent and energetic lecturer who made a complicated subject seem easy," added Trisha Schaeffer White, also a 1981 graduate. "He was perfect for freshman chemistry." White, who is now a doctor, added that Bonk inspired her to consider science as a career.
Since this is the last semester for the course that he's led for more than 40 years, the award is particularly poignant for Bonk.
"This period in my life contains very mixed emotions," Bonk said. "If you've taught 30,000 people general chemistry, and yesterday that came to an end - that's a bit traumatic. But at the same time it's great to win an award recognizing your service."
Next fall, the lecture-based course that Bonk created will be replaced by a class more focused on semi-independent laboratory investigation, taught by several different professors in the chemistry department. Bonk will continue to serve as director of undergraduate studies, and will teach a new environmental chemistry course for non-majors.
"It'll be interesting to see if we can teach an old dog new tricks," he chuckled.
Written by Margaret Harris.
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