A beautiful mind: Charlie Ouimet loved teaching

Charlie Ouimet

As a clinical neurosciences course director fascinated by the workings of the human brain, Charlie Ouimet knew a thing or two about attention spans.

“We’ve all slept through courses, right? There is a study showing students will drift off after about 10 to 15 minutes, but our class goes for an hour and a half,” Ouimet told FSU MED in an interview about great teaching. “If you start teaching at 1, and now it’s 1:30, they haven’t heard the last 15 minutes of what you’ve had to say.”

Ouimet, who died May 2 at the age of 76, had the perfect antidote: his sense of humor.

He engineered his lectures to be filled with surprises meant to keep students alert. In a lecture hall filled with more than a hundred students, he’d call on one while simultaneously (as if by coincidence) displaying a candid photo of that student on the screen.

Ouimet’s quick wit paired with a genuine love of teaching – and students. He earned more than 20 teaching awards during his career, including the top teaching honor in the Program in Medical Sciences nine times in 10 years during the 1990s.  After the ninth, the program’s leaders changed the name of the award to, "The Charles Ouimet Excellence in Teaching Award."
“One thing I remember him telling me about teaching complex subjects: make it as simple as possible but not more simple than possible,” said Graham Patrick, who taught pharmacology and followed Ouimet in becoming a professor emeritus in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

“I think Charlie influenced a lot of us because, to be honest, not many had the set of abilities to do it like he did. But a lot of us tried,” Patrick said.

To say Ouimet was one of the college’s most beloved professors is understatement. A Facebook post about his death generated a flood of memories and more than 8,000 impressions within the first 48 hours. A sampling:

“My favorite teacher and class in medical school. So smart and funny. I will always cherish your memory.” 
- Vanessa Vasquez (M.D., ’10)

“I had the honor to have you as my [admissions] interviewer. A few weeks later, I got accepted and knew it was because of you. First day of your class, you called me out and told me you were glad to see me again! Eleven years after graduation, I still remember your voice and your witty jokes as it was yesterday. You will be greatly missed Dr. Ouimet.” 
- Helen Thuy-Duong Vo (M.D., ’12)

“He was such an amazing teacher, an amazing person, and left an impression on so many of us. I still have memories of things from his class that randomly flash into my brain during my day every once in a while. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from him.” 
- Joseph Pepitone (M.D., ’17)

“What an exceptional educator. So many have benefited from his words. Never do I think of the MCA without hearing him.” 
- Melissa Kozakiewicz (M.D., ’10)

“I still remember my med school interview with him and how he was so kind and welcoming, made me want to go to FSU CoM. Anybody else remember this lecture where the students wrapped him in toilet paper? (I’m guessing he was nerve being wrapped in a myelin sheath?) He always knew how to keep his students engaged!” 
- Adam Field (M.D., ’16)

“God broke the mold with Dr. Ouimet! I still say ‘The FDD, frickin donut of death’ and try hard not to think about the Circle of Willis, but among other things, he will always be remembered for his kind heart and effervescent teaching style. Truly, there is no other like him.” 
- Amanda Abraira (M.D., ’15)

“A teacher I will never ever forget. Inspired me to work hard and become interested in a topic I never thought I’d like.” 
- Kyle Moyles (M.D., ’17)

“He advocated for me to become a physician and I will be forever thankful. He was kind in a competitive environment and could instill confidence when everyone’s prevailing feeling was being overwhelmed. The best kind of teacher.” 
- Jake Lassiter (M.D., ’13)

“Such a great guy. I never knew anyone who didn’t like him. Many loved his witty sense of humor. It really made the subject much more tolerable to those of us who had a hard time understanding neuroscience. Such a great role model and he genuinely cared about his students.” 
- Laura Dacks (M.D., ’05) 

“I went into neurology after his amazing class. He was such a great teacher and wonderful human being.” 
- Katy Murray (M.D., ’16)

“He was an educator like no other. He lives on in the hearts and minds of all his students. Being taught by him was a privilege.” 
- Monica Peña (M.D., ’12)

Recognizing that neuroscience could be a tedious subject to cover in a lab or lecture (or at the grocery story, he joked), Ouimet sought ideas on a new approach.

He turned his lectures into give-and-take sessions rather than continuous tests of attention span. On his PowerPoint slides he asked questions in addition to listing facts, constantly calling on students to encourage critical thinking and problem solving instead of fact recall.

“I feel I am at my best when the students have forgotten to take notes because they have become engaged in rigorous debate,” Ouimet said.

About those debates:

“Yes, this class loved to give me a hard time,” he said as commencement speaker for the M.D. Class of 2012. “I remember weeks of heated debate outside of the classroom to determine whether free will was only an illusion created by the cerebral cortex. Do we have free will? Speaking for the class, Casey Cosgrove concluded that we absolutely maybe had free will unless, of course, we do not.”

Beneath the humor was an unmistakable love of students – discovered in a rather odd way.

“I was 19 years old. My first teaching job, in New Bedford, Mass. Somebody threw a chair at me!” Ouimet said. “First day!

“I learned that you better make what you have to say relevant, and you have to find some way of capturing the students,” he said. “I think anyone who goes into the teaching profession has to ask themselves this question: ‘What’s the difference between a professor and a textbook?’ And if there’s no difference you shouldn’t be teaching.

“The professor plays a role in saying why his or her field is exciting and you have to communicate that excitement to the students. If they sense that you have no enthusiasm for your field, they have a tendency not to have enthusiasm for the subject area. If they see your natural enthusiasm, that can be contagious.”

Ouimet humbly pointed to one explanation for winning so many awards, including the top honor at Florida State University – the Distinguished Teaching Award.

“First of all, I’m extremely fond of the students and I think they perceive that,” Ouimet said. “They know whether you like them. They know whether you enjoy teaching. They can tell that. They know if you care whether they learn and that matters to them.”

His love of students is apparent in the scholarship fund set up in his honor. Ouimet grew up in a Massachusetts neighborhood considered low-socioeconomic status. Ouimet simply called it: “Wrong side of the tracks.”

The scholarship fund will support FSU College of Medicine students. (Please note that you would like to make a gift in honor or memory of someone and include Dr. Ouimet under ‘Tribute Name.’)

Not everyone agreed with one of Ouimet’s core beliefs about grading. He was adamantly opposed to the idea that medical school should be used to separate students in part to help residency programs and specialties with their selectivity.

“You set out specific criteria you want them to achieve, and your exam questions are based on that criteria, so there’s no grading on a curve,” Ouimet said. “If they master all of the criteria they get an A and if they master 80 percent of it they get a B, but never on a curve, so that means that all of the students could get an A if they earn it.

“If you grade on a curve then you expect a percentage of the students not to master the material. So what exactly is it you would want your doctor not to know?

“If 20% of the students are getting an answer wrong on an exam, I want to know what I’m doing wrong to cause that? I will review my teaching and make whatever changes I need in order for 100% to get it right.”

For those who didn’t have the privilege of being taught by Ouimet, seeing him deliver the 2012 commencement speech is an opportunity to witness his infectious humor and enthusiasm and to understand why his students were so drawn to his teaching. (The introduction of Ouimet as commencement speaker begins at 37:40.)
Psychological research on humor has established its connections to making others feel good and to conveying hope, gratitude and spirituality. It’s further connected to wisdom and love of learning, as well as optimism.

Beneath the laughter, this was Ouimet’s gift to all who knew and learned from him. In that 2012 commencement speech, he told the students:

“We know that our pride in you is a burden, but you have to understand that while your parents set the bar before you were 10 years old, it was you, driven by an irrepressible sense of decency, who raised it even higher. You have dedicated yourselves to alleviating human suffering, to preserving life, to easing death. You have given up who you were for who you might become.

“So we are proud of you not because you are smart, a likely accident of nature over which we and you had little substantive control, but because you have chosen to embrace the deepest of human values. In confronting the problem of ‘what to do with your lives,’ you chose an elegant solution: one based on a keenly developed moral code and a finely honed sense of humanism.”

Contact Doug Carlson at Doug.Carlson@med.fsu.edu