Prof. Larry Vale teaches urban design. “If I don’t make eye contact with people, I lose them,” says Vale, whose students don’t doze.

He is famous for constantly shifting the presentation — from lecture to dialogue to discussion back to lecture. He’ll spontaneously interrupt the lecture with a question. He’ll show a videotape. Or a funny cartoon. “I’ve even played an old Malvina Reynolds song, one that mocks the uniformity of the suburban boxes built in California in the 1950s.”

Vale is head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He has written four books on the history, politics, and sociology of urban design and is well known for having revived the department’s undergraduate program, which had fallen to four majors when he took over and subsequently peaked to 30.

He earned a degree from Amherst College, a master’s in architecture from MIT, and a Ph.D. from Oxford. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Rhodes Scholar.

“He is a great source of information, a tireless champion of the undergraduate curriculum, and a valued friend,” one student says.

“He treats students as equals,” another adds. “He values our opinions, even though he knows more.”

The gain, Vale says, is mutual.

A housing expert, he makes it a point to learn where each student lives. “I have students from rural Alaska, Nairobi, and New York’s Chinatown,” he says. “Learning about their physical environments informs my research.

“When a student from Singapore writes a paper about the success of high-rise public housing, it means so much when I’m explaining problems of high-rise public housing in the U.S. It enables me to draw broad patterns.”

After he has given a lecture, he says, he often feels that he is the one who has had the lesson. “We don’t really understand anything until we teach it.”