What we do in the classroom affects the world into which students graduate. Increasingly I see accounts, like the recent article in Psychology Today, decrying a general decline in problem-solving skills, attributed by many to high-stakes testing. And on the more scholarly side, champions of Liberal Arts education like Martha Nussbaum warn against skills-based educations turning graduates into “useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” unable to critique authority.* Between these two narratives, I see the debt contemporary education owes pioneers of democratic, engaged teaching like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. As a consequence, I frame my duty to students not just as imparting the best information I can, but also as equipping those students to see how actively participating in their educations empowers them.
*Nussbaum, Martha. “Political Soul-making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education.” Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 37.2, (2006): 301-313.
Department of History
Two young fish — undergraduates — were on their way to class one morning when an old professor swam by in the other direction.
“How’s the water, boys?” the professor fish asked.
“Fine, Dr. Mackerel,” they said, smiling politely at the professor as they continued.
Once they were safely out of earshot, one turned to the other, troubled, “Uh, dude, what’s water…?”
[based on a joke told by David Foster Wallace in 2005]
Our students are swimming in a medium that, by and large, they do not recognize. For a fish, water is as banal as it is vital. As I see it, a good portion of my job—that is, if “Ph.D.” still stands for a teacher who is a friend of wisdom—is to help them actually consider that basic, unquestioned, banal, vital reality.
A disturbingly large portion of what we all take for granted turns out to be off somehow—stories about things that never happened, stories that make us feel like we are something that we are not. And those myths that we collectively tell ourselves, stories about famous people in the past, for instance, ripple out to homes and voting booths and statehouses, to policy decisions that impact people in the present and future. The past isn’t past because the past is also us.
So as a historian, teaching is the way to unmask what is hidden in plain sight. It is the wonderful and terrible task that we at the university have to profess: “This is water… this is water.” And if we don’t point it out, no one else will.
Department of Modern Languages and Classics
Teaching early modern literature can be challenging: some students are eager to explore its literary production, others dread what they perceive as outdated materials. In our contemporary culture of information overload, how can we make centuries-old content relevant to students today? I strive to form connections: culture, society, community, religion, politics. These elements form the reality of any individual throughout history. Establishing connections between modern and early modern values repeatedly succeeds in engaging my students. Once they understand early modern socio-cultural codes and connect them to their 21st-century ones, their view of reality is indelibly enriched – like seeing the code in The Matrix, they cannot unsee it. Old materials become meaningful. Layers of meaning emerge in their everyday life. Be it through second language acquisition, active learning activities, canonical authors, research projects or service-learning… I consider it my responsibility to generate those connections to empower the next generation workforce.
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Blount Scholars Program
Department of English