Monday, January 15, 2007

Remembering great teachers that shaped our lives

Friday before spring semester classes begin is a time AU has set aside to celebrate and strengthen teaching. For the past two years, our gorgeous new Katzen Arts Center ( ) has been the venue for this event. It is titled the Ann Ferren Teaching Conference ( after a former faculty member and Interim Provost, who crusaded to support faculty members in becoming better teachers. I wish students could witness this event, where nearly three hundred faculty and a few advanced graduate students spend a day discussing a calling they love and to which they are deeply committed.

Panel discussions are mostly led by faculty, who share effective, innovative teaching practices and by students, who discuss teaching practices that engage and motivate them. This year, I added a new set of perspectives to the mix. I invited three AU board members to share experiences of teaching practices and teachers that made a difference in their lives.

Here is an excerpt from the letter in which I described the panel’s context and purpose:

“The panel’s motivating idea emerged from a memorable Terrace Dining Room breakfast I shared with several Board members and students, coinciding with last November’s Board meeting.

As an alternative to casual conversation, I posed a question to [the board members] that interested me and I thought would interest the four or five students present: “Could you tell us about the path you followed from AU student to Board member, especially choices you made along the way, how they worked out and what you learned from them?” As conversation progressed, I also posed a second question: “what do you find most personally rewarding and fulfilling about your present professional work and about your role as a Board member?” Despite an early hour, students became totally engaged with the conversations these questions evoked, as I did. My goal, in proposing an Ann Ferren Teaching Conference panel with Board-member participants, was to recreate the ambiance of that breakfast in a way that faculty colleagues would find valuable.

Having now thought about the panel more concretely, I believe that achieving this goal could provide a most useful connection between you, in your roles as alumni/Board members, and faculty members who attend. But the conversation’s substance must be somewhat different from our November breakfast because the audience will be different. What would most interest colleagues, it seems to me, is candid, personal reflections about how memorable contacts with faculty members, both positive and negative, both within the classroom and outside of it, shaped important life-choices you made on your path from AU student to Board member. The contacts need not have been with AU faculty members, though of course recollections from AU would have particular meaning for this audience.

Some of you may be familiar with David Shribman’s entertaining, evocative little book, I Remember My Teacher. One striking impression the book made on me was the very different ways that teachers memorably impacted their students. Some were compassionate, others irascible. Some were primarily classroom performers; others were empathetic, caring mentors. Sometimes the influence was felt immediately, for others it came many years later."

Writing this last has led me to reflect on teachers I remember – all at the university level, in contrast to some of Shribman’s subjects. My honors supervisor at Dartmouth, John Williams, taught me a valuable lesson in mentoring by agreeing to direct my research in an area of the philosophy of history that he had not studied for years. We read the same works together, me for the first time, him for the second. My doctoral advisor at the University of Minnesota, Robert Holt, provided support that very probably kept me from blowing my brains out when I was suffering through painful divorce proceedings. Carnegie Mellon’s Herbert Simon convinced me, in the gentlest way possible, that my postdoctoral project applying certain esoteric mathematical formalisms to the political economy of developing nations exceeded my capabilities and, possibly, anyone’s capabilities. MIT’s Jay Forrester compelled me to master his dynamic simulation model of US economic development by tasking me to introduce the model to his group’s principal corporate financial sponsors, with him in the audience.”

The panel was moving – even memorable. I wish I could have videotaped it. Board members spoke of specific faculty members who gave them self confidence, inspired them and motivated them. It was a reminder to those of us who have chosen teaching a profession that our work does make a difference.


Post a Comment

<< Home