Bonk in His Element

Four decades of teaching introductory chemistry to some 30,000 students has given one popular professor the profound satisfaction of science well-taught.
August 1, 2001

James F. Bonk stands in front of the long blackboard in the main chemistry auditorium and, for once, the man who never needs lecture notes does not know what to say. He simply stands there, a wiry, bespectacled man with a fringe of gray hair and a shirt pocket stuffed with pens, shaking his head in astonishment.

He’s been had, and he knows it.

Usually, Bonk is in his element in this room, talking calmly and easily, cracking jokes, filling the board with meticulous cursive writing, explaining the principles of chemistry to an audience of undergraduates as he paces back and forth behind the demonstration table. Ask any former student about Bonk, and he or she will likely offer testimonials about how Bonk “made a complicated subject easy,” how his lectures were “clear” and “seamless,” how he never failed to answer—indeed, to anticipate—questions from students.

On this day, however, the hall belongs to the students. Small groups of them have been trickling into the lecture hall for the past half-hour, settling into rows of seats covered in 1970s-era harvest-gold fuzz, waiting for their former professor to enter. They are attending not to hear Bonk, but to honor him.

The instant he walks in, they burst into applause—more than a hundred students, plus a dozen professors and a handful of administrators, all standing and cheering the man in the crisp white shirt who stands abashed at the front of the room. The end-of-semester pressures, the early-morning lectures, the occasional “F” on a Friday quiz—all are forgotten in this moment, this hero’s welcome for the professor who has dedicated his career to teaching.

When the applause dies down, Bonk finds his voice. “Usually, in this room, I’m not speechless,” he says, grinning amazement and adjusting his trademark red tie. “But today, I am sort of speechless.”

Bonk came to Duke in 1959, a twenty-eight-year-old chemist with a passion for teaching, fresh from a graduate-school stint in charge of an entire satellite campus of freshman chemistry students. Now, after forty-two years and more than 30,000 students, he has the teaching of chemistry down to, well, a science. He spends from four to six hours preparing each lecture, choreographing what he will do and say, even planning where he needs to place pieces of chalk in the blackboard tray so he does not waste time searching for them. He says 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 taught the same course for decades, he rethinks what he says each year, searching for a better way to help students learn.

Nothing in his experience or training, however, could prepare him for the day when he had to leave part of it behind—or for the university’s response when he finally did. This spring, the last day of undergraduate classes marked more than just the end of another semester at Duke. It also heralded the end of “Bonkistry,” the famous introductory chemistry sequence Bonk created in the Sixties and has taught ever since. Starting this fall, general chemistry students will choose between a traditional lecture-based section and one more focused on semi-independent laboratory investigation. For the first time since Eisenhower was president, Jim Bonk will not be their primary teacher.

Which isn’t to say the veteran professor won’t be keeping busy. There’s the new course, for one thing. As chemistry’s director of undergraduate studies, he will be monitoring how students respond to different teaching approaches. Then there’s the Duke tennis team. He has served as a volunteer assistant coach for decades, and he has no intention of quitting, despite a shoulder injury that keeps his serve in check. He also plans to teach a new environmental chemistry course for non-majors this coming year—“see if we can teach an old dog new tricks,” he says, chuckling.

In a way, Bonk has been learning new tricks throughout his long career as Duke’s point man on general chemistry. In the past forty years, the field of chemistry has undergone a tremendous shift as traditional boundaries between life sciences and physical sciences have become increasingly blurred. Research on living cells, once the near-exclusive domain of biologists, is now a primary interest for several Duke chemists. The American Chemical Society, for its part, is poised to add biochemistry to its list of requirements for chemistry majors. So, although the basic form of Bonkistry—lectures, lab, recitation—has remained constant, many of its details have not.

Some changes are purely physical. In the 1960s, chemistry students attended class in the gray Gothic building now known as Old Chem, where the lecture hall “looked like something out of the nineteenth century,” recalls Jim Ray ’68. Ray and his fellow students did their laboratory work on East Campus, in the “depressingly dreary” basement of what is now the Duke University Museum of Art. If students needed help, they could find him in an office numbered “07”—an appropriate location for the man who sometimes introduces himself as “Bonk…James Bonk,” in a nod to his almost-namesake, Agent 007. When the chemistry department moved to the new Paul M. Gross Chemistry Laboratory on Science Drive, Bonk lost the “07” but gained more space for labs, an illuminated periodic table of the elements, and eventually the large plastic “Bonk Is Here” banner that hangs above his office door.

The gradual elimination of lecture-demonstrations has been a more subtle change in general chemistry. Although live chemical pyrotechnics are popular with students, they can be dangerous. Bonk cites the experience of one of his colleagues who tried to demonstrate a thermite reaction in class. “Thermite tends to produce large flames and temperatures over 1200 degrees Celsius. On this occasion, whoever prepared it must have put too much in the pan, because when he ignited the thing, it caught his lecture notes on fire. As I recall, the class applauded wildly.”

The course’s content has also changed, mostly in response to new directions and emphases in chemical research. Topics once considered too advanced or arcane for general chemistry—such as the hot, diffuse “ideal” gases that inhabit the equations of physical chemistry—have become vital. Some formerly essential topics, such as scrutiny of the periodic table of the elements and the systematic identification of unknown compounds, have disappeared.

“The second semester of general chemistry used to be a kind of travelogue of the periodic table,” Bonk says. “We’d go through one family at a time and learn all the reactions and uses for each element.

That very detailed kind of information has been totally replaced—mainly with things that trickled down from physical chemistry or with the acid-base chemistry, which is the foundation of so much industrial chemistry and biology,” he says, citing new topics such as equilibrium, the delicate acid-base balance that organisms must maintain for survival.

Some chemists bemoan the disappearance from the curriculum of such “descriptive chemistry,” Bonk notes. He cites an article in the Journal of Chemical Education, “Silver Chloride Is a Pale Green Gas,” whose author lamented the loss of what was once common knowledge among beginning students. The inside joke, as a hands-on chemist would know, is that silver chloride is actually a white powder. As the divide between chemistry and biology began to be breached, however, crossover topics like acid-base chemistry took precedence.

“In a broad sense, acid-base chemistry is probably the thing that will serve [students] best,” Bonk says. “For biology—well, the ‘A’ in DNA and RNA is ‘acid.’ The techniques of chemistry are being applied to living systems, and that certainly influences what we try to teach.”

Pelham Wilder, who has taught at Duke since 1949 and is now chemistry professor emeritus, agrees. “Today, chemistry is ostensibly the language of life science. You can’t do biochemistry or biology without chemistry, particularly organic chemistry. Science has changed.”

Changes in science have meant changes in the interests of Bonk’s students. Now, general chemistry is a prerequisite not only for pre-medical students and chemistry majors, but also for students of biomedical engineering and environmental sciences. Neither major existed when Bonk came to Duke. The broadening role of chemistry in society, plus Bonk’s fame as a lecturer, drew many non-science majors into the course. Such popularity meant that in a typical year, about a third of the freshman class regularly trekked up the Gross Chem stairs to hear Bonk lecture.

Although enrollment in Bonkistry has remained nearly constant, the number of chemistry majors has fallen, from around eighty to fewer than thirty-five a year. This decline occurred at the same time advanced mathematical techniques became crucial for upper-level chemistry courses, notes Wilder. “When I came along, physical chemistry was concerned with thermodynamics and kinetics,” he says. “Physical chemistry is now looking more at structure and at quantum mechanics, and not a lot of people nationally study physical chemistry. I think the reason for that is that it requires advanced math. Anything that requires a lot of math is not going to be very popular today.”

The enduring factor amid all these changes has been Bonk himself, according to Wilder. “There was a consistency in that course.… [Bonk] wrote all the hour tests himself, all the quizzes. He did yeoman’s service for this university.”

The disappearance of Bonkistry will be a blow for the chemistry department, admits chair John Simon. However, it also offers an opportunity to rethink how chemistry is taught, he says. Beginning this fall, one section of general chemistry will be taught as a series of topics, with a different professor for each topic. For example, Simon will teach a unit on the ozone hole. As students learn how artificial refrigerants like freon destroy atmospheric ozone, they will also learn about molecular bonding and the properties of halides like chlorine and fluorine—the “C” and “F” in ozone-attacking CFCs. Other professors will teach modules on DNA, Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev’s nineteenth-century development of the periodic table, and other topics.

The challenge for the department is not how to replace Bonk—“How do you replace an institution?” wonders Robert Thompson, dean of Trinity College—but how to create a course that teaches chemistry as well as Bonkistry did. “Jim Bonk has single-handedly taken care of the freshman aspect of our curriculum,” Simon says. “It will be a great challenge for us to put together a course with the same impact that he has had.”

For many students, Bonk’s impact extended far beyond a single chemistry course and a letter grade on a transcript. Several alumni now employed in health and scientific fields point to Bonkistry as a reason they pursued those careers. “I loved science, and Bonk really fed that enjoyment,” says Trisha Schaeffer White ’81, who is now a physician. “He was an excellent lecturer, always very energetic. He was perfect for freshman chemistry.”

“When I began teaching in medical school, I tried to emulate Dr. Bonk’s style of presenting the material in well-organized, logical order, and communicating an excitement for the subject matter,” says Ken Touw ’69, a Bonkistry student as a freshman who also became a physician. “Dr. Bonk’s greatest influence on me was to serve as a model of good teaching.”

Touw is not alone in his appreciation. Sue Eldon ’86, who now teaches science at Durham’s Northern High School, cites Bonk’s teaching prowess as a source of inspiration. “When I worked on my Master of Arts in Teaching, we were asked to reflect on teachers who had made a difference in our lives,” says Eldon, who switched her major from computer science to chemistry because of Bonk. “For Dr. Bonk, the answer was clear—not only did he know his subject, he knew how to explain it and make it understandable to others.”

Other students recall a less “professorial” side. Mike Stoner ’66, who played tennis for Bonk, describes a frustrating afternoon when every ball he hit fell just an inch short of clearing the net. “Bonk took me aside, and said, ‘Son, I’ve looked at your racket, I’ve checked your grip, I’ve watched your serve, and I think I’ve figured out what you need to do: Hit the damn ball two inches higher.’”

Several former students recall the pie incident, which occurred after a campus organization ordered a lemon meringue “hit” on the professor. The hit man’s missive went wide of its mark, clipping Bonk in the shoulder. With his vision unimpaired, Bonk said, “The only thing I could think of to do was to run after the guy.” After a brief chase, he caught up with the prankster in a creek near the chemistry building and handed him over to campus police. Shortly thereafter, the organization was disbanded, “partly due to the jock-ish tendencies of the Duke faculty,” Bonk says with pride. 

Finally, there’s the urban-legendary story of the wayward students and the flat tire, which Bonk says is based on a real incident from the 1960s. Most versions begin with four students who spend a weekend partying at the University of Virginia, then return to Duke unprepared for their chemistry exam. Rather than flunk the test, they ask Bonk for an extension, explaining that they had a flat tire on the way home and were unable to make it back in time. Bonk relents, and when the students come to make up the test, he puts them in separate rooms and wishes them luck. The first question, worth five points, is an easy question about chemistry. The second question, for 95 points: “Which tire?”

Bonk’s final spring at the helm of general chemistry was an exciting one—so gratifying, he jokes, that he may try to retire every year. In April, the tennis team dedicated its trophy room to him. Later that month, he received the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Distinguished Teaching Award, one of four awards given annually to outstanding teachers in Trinity College. In their letters seconding his nomination, four of his colleagues used the word “legend.” And during a surprise party his department threw on the last day of classes, a flabbergasted and flattered Bonk received Duke’s highest honor. He had his jersey number retired. From now on, two blue-and-white tennis jerseys—marked “Bonk 11” and “Bonk 12” in honor of Bonkistry’s official course numbers—will hang at the front of the lecture hall. They are a permanent tribute to the man who taught general chemistry so long, so well, and to so many.

It is said that whenever maestro Arturo Toscanini began work on a piece, he approached the music as if he had never heard it before. Each time, the great conductor discovered something about the work that he had never noticed before. Although he was terribly nearsighted, Toscanini refused to wear glasses during performances. Instead, he memorized the score, note by note, instrument by instrument, measure by measure, until it was perfectly solid in his mind.

Bonk is chemistry’s Toscanini—a master teacher, tirelessly dedicated to his students, a man who approached each lecture as if he were a freshman learning chemistry for the first time. The inscription on the cake at his “retirement” party read: “Bonkistry, n. General chemistry instruction unique to Duke University, characterized by a complete absence of lecture notes, unfailing enthusiasm for teaching, backlit periodic table, and copious quantities of cursive writing on the blackboard.” 

Harris is a physics major and rising junior.