Who's teaching whom?
If metal has been one important source of creative inspiration, then my students have been the other. After all, what better a way to cultivate beginner’s mind than to be around beginners your whole life? But it’s not just teaching the basics every year that keeps you young intellectually, since frankly, that part of it gets old. What makes being around 20-somethings special is that they are so full of hope. I don’t know how many of them would agree, since they seem much more stressed out about their lives and careers than my generation was. But I also see an almost taken-for-granted self-confidence, not only that they can fashion the personal lives that they want for themselves, but change the world as well. Of course with life’s inevitable disappointments many will become jaded just like the rest of us – though the nice thing is that I don’t have to see that part. Even as I age my students stay 20-something, so with every new year, there is fresh hope and ideas as well.
Then again, hard-working as they are, my students have also been lucky; the majority of their peers in high school, much less worldwide, will never see the inside of a college campus (not to mention an elite Ph.D. program). But that highlights another important quality I’ve always liked and admired about them, which is what seems to be their innate sense of social justice. For every student who talks during office hours only about getting ahead, I’ve talked with ten who want to succeed professionally, of course, but also empower and lift up others along the way – others both near and far. That gives me hope not only that things will keep changing, but that they will keep changing for the better, even if sometimes beginners taking two steps forward forces veterans to push one step back….
Academics rarely get well-known for being great teachers; fame comes from their research. But being well-known to anonymous others is not the only thing that matters, for there is also how being an academic feels to oneself, which comes from our day-to-day interactions with real people. Imagine what a privilege it is, therefore – and fun – it is to work amidst such enthusiastic, optimistic, and talented individuals as my students. Although my career has gone better than I could have ever hoped, ultimately it’s my past and present students that have made this the best job in the world. Thank you.
For potential future students let me say a few words about my pedagogical “attitude,” since I don’t have anything as grand as a “philosophy” of teaching. I think one of the most important qualities in good teaching is empathy, knowing where your audience or questioner is at, in the moment, and being able to speak their language. And then, on that basis, one leads by example, though what that will look like depends on the setting.
In a large lecture class it means exposing students to competing and sometimes controversial points of view on a broad range of topics, and then encouraging them to figure out where they stand, and why. My role in that process is devil’s advocate rather than proselytizer. I like back and forth in the classroom, and would much rather read a student essay that made a strong case against my views, than a weak one for it. But if you want high tech, be forewarned. I don’t use Power Point, so except perhaps for a video or two (used no doubt to illustrate an important theoretical point…), it’s just me and my famously organized lectures unfolding on the chalkboard.
In small seminars, in contrast, professors are much more directly involved in cultivating students’ ideas and work. I personally used to disavow the production of “clones,” feeling that my job was to help a student find and grow their own best idea, not one of mine. I’ve had to rethink that a bit lately since I began to proselytize for a quantum social science..., but within that constraint the same kind of work attracts me that did before: work that takes seriously the responsibility of intellectuals to use their privileged status to ask and/or answer important questions that others can’t or won’t. In short, I want students who will teach me something that I need to know, and at my age that takes some thinking outside the box, even if not stepping out of line.
Am I a good teacher? Well, I’m grateful for the scores I get on quantitative student evaluations; there are some nice comments (and a few less so!) on RateMyProfessor.com (link) and this past year for the first time I received the highest possible praise on a written evaluation: “cool AF.” But you’d really have to see for yourself.