Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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7 thoughts on “Teachers Needed!

  1. President Mike – I thoroughly enjoyed the inherent dichotomy presented in the NYT Sunday magazine article – on the surface, one alum/teacher was fairly evaluated and not tenured… while another alum went “outside the system” to connect to Frank Sica ’73 (VC/angel investor extrordinnaire)! Too bad there is not a way of capturing the latter version of the Wesleyan ethos earlier/more often! (While I do not know if Mr. Goldman took his class, Prof. Kilby’s description of Econ 263 Entrepreneurship and ED indicates that “nota bene, this class is intellectual rather than vocational in nature”…)

  2. Thank you, President Roth! You speak the truth. “Certainty is absurd,” to quote Voltaire! I am sure there is some wonderful dialogue on campus about this election, I wish I was there. Wesleyan taught me to be comfortable with uncertainty, what a gift!

    Laurel Wise, class of ’95, Okatie, SC

  3. When I first saw the heading to your post, “Teaching”, I assumed it would be about the K-12 sector, as so often in higher education teaching is called lecturing or professing. Wesleyan seems to produce a fair amount of teachers for an institution that does not provide the final step of training to be able to teach things, save music or science programs. While programs like the Mellon fellowship nurture students of color to become teachers of higher education, I feel Wesleyan can do more to prepare the ranks of Wesfolk that go into K-12 teaching. With alternative certification programs and higher public school teacher salaries, I assume this number has soared in the past 10 years. However, as a former graduate student in elementary education, taking on as much debt as i did as a Wesleyan undergrad, I “didn’t know what I was getting myself into”. And I wasn’t thrust head first into a classroom with just a summer of training, considered the ‘smart way’ to go getting into K-12 teaching after leaving a school like Wesleyan without teacher education classes, as it provides a regular teaching salary. While I’m not advocating Wesleyan bring back its acclaimed teacher ed. program I’ve heard about, I feel relevant coursework would be beneficial. While I think “educational studies” coursework, which can be found in a random Econ FYI or AFAM visiting professor’s class, should be increased, theory/practice coursework would be particularly valuable both to Wesleyan students who don’t know what its like to really be in the classroom as well as Middletown youth. My time working at Oddfellows Playhouse influenced my decision to study elementary education, but just as my other experiences working with youth, this was not an academic environment. I feel this preparation at Wesleyan will help students to see teaching as a “career”, as “a job”, rather than an “idealistic pursuit”. Part of being a teacher I learned was accepting the realities of “the system”, a big step from the idealism of being a Cardinal. Just as peer of mine from ’06 who went to work Lehman Br. has learned, ‘the system’ matters, and after at some point after graduation, you realize the rhetoric “of changing the system” sounds infantile. Oh sure, I’m not knocking the ability for the global network of Wesfolk to enact serious systemic change. Look at Hollywood, look at In the Heights. But Wesleyan coursework can shed more light on “teaching” for the hundreds of Wesleyan students each year who say, “Hm, what can I do with this BA in English/Sociology/Classics/Science in Society? Ah, I think I’ll teach kids.” How informed is that 21 year old compared to the 21 year old at Central Connecticut State as to the life he/she/ze is about to pursue?
    -Adam ‘06.5, student teacher turned reporter turned real estate ‘sellout’ who might actually be able to afford paying his student loans now

  4. In the midst of a blogpost on teaching, you include this statement: “In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism.” – It seems Wesleyan, institutionally, has become quite comfortable with being increasingly political, from the barely tacit endorsement of one political candidate at Commencement and on the main webpage to comments like this. If Wesleyan, as an institution, is going to be dedicated to one political viewpoint from here on out, that seems in direct conflict with the idea that “we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world.”

  5. There was no “barely tacit” endorsement of Senator Obama. When Senator Kennedy asked his colleague to deliver the Commencement Address, this had nothing to do with an endorsement.

    I did wonder, though, when I wrote the sentence you cite whether I was being “too political.” I included it because in a post on teaching I thought it appropriate to point out the ways in which anti-intellectualism and close-mindedness has become part of our political (and governing) environment. It’s poisonous to learning, whatever one’s political beliefs.

    That said, I hesitated about the sentence because it is crucial to me that Wesleyan not be dedicated to one political viewpoint. On the other hand, I do have views on education that have political aspects. I concluded that expressing a viewpoint relevant to current politics doesn’t close or limit “new ideas and different ways of seeing the world.” On the contrary, it calls for the expression of other ideas and ways of seeing. And in your case, it seems to have worked.

    Good teaching doesn’t require that one refrain from taking stands. It just requires an openness to new ideas that may revise the stands one takes.

  6. Commentaries addressing your recent post appear to establish Wesleyan as a university grounded in its intellectual heritage. It seems the transformative powers of education must encourage small amounts of anti-intellectual discourse to surface to create an opening for debate. In the final analysis, it is this debate that can potentially rock the foundations of tradition that are barriers to change or that stand in the way of appreciation. The successful university does this while barely ever letting go of an intense dedication to exceptional academic standards. Thankfully, this university has built a strong reputation on these high standards.

    The Mississippi debate motivated my response to the “too political” nature of the national election. Of course, it goes without saying that anti-intellectualism has surfaced in our national debate. The intellectual and refined debates (as seen on camera) keep the candidates looking strong and in control for their constituencies as they undermine each other’s perspectives and fuel the fire of ambition. There is a danger of allowing political adversaries to come together in a straight forward conversation (over a beer, perhaps). This type of unscripted conversation may be too great for the country to handle, especially since it would highlight the candidates inabilities to effect immediate change. Our own history should make us aware of this tendency to attach too high of a worth to government to inspire us, direct us and resolve our matters.

    Agreeably, we can add incredible value to others and ourselves in our openness to revise the stands we take. It might suit the country to deal with government in more manageable doses so that we don’t cling to a hope of using it as a beacon for instantaneous change and fulfillment.

    Hopefully, the transformative affects of the liberal arts will someday trickle down to all levels of education and instill the possibility and power of change, especially in the first grade.

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