A University Professor Defines the Qualities That ‘Light the Spark’
By Paul Von Blum
Chris Hedges, in his moving essay in Truthdig on Coleman Brown, his late teacher at Colgate University, offers several profound insights into excellent teaching. In his tribute to his mentor, Hedges notes how professor Brown “lit a spark” and provided powerful inspiration for his students. He encouraged his students to challenge assumptions and suppositions and stimulate their imagination––in short, he helped them learn rather than merely memorize a set of facts and concepts and then move on to another class and mindlessly repeat the process.
Liberal arts institutions like Colgate generally attract more teachers like Coleman Brown than other institutions (especially large research universities). They are, after all, primarily committed to education. In these colleges and universities, front-line scholarly production, while not discouraged, is decidedly a lower priority. But even in major research settings, students can find excellent teachers who exemplify the attributes that Chris Hedges noted. Each campus has a dozen or more women and men whom students always identify as the stellar teachers and who stand out because they go far beyond what the large majority of their colleagues do. The most astute students know how to maximize their educations by taking teachers, not classes. That is why Hedges himself enrolled in six of Brown’s religion classes during his studies at Colgate.
The excellent teachers reflect most of the attributes that Hedges wrote about in his essay. Some, of course, are vigorous and charismatic in the classroom, revealing the characteristics of great performers everywhere. They exhibit strong, even dramatic personalities and reveal a striking presence in the classroom. From the moment the class begins, their students know that. These traits are useful but not entirely necessary for excellent teaching. Above all, personal commitment to student learning—which always means paying close and sustained attention to students and all their needs, far beyond their specific academic concerns—is essential.
Excellent teaching always involves close interaction that transcends any particular class or specific reading or writing assignment. It means extensive accessibility in the office and beyond. It often entails having lunch or coffee with individuals or small groups of students or even having them as guests at home. This is more difficult in large institutional settings like UCLA and USC, but even in such places it is possible, although it can run counter to institutional norms and is usually contrary to faculty culture. But like Hedges’ professor Brown, teachers who do these things revel in their departure from the norm and in their personal eccentricities and are indifferent, often defiantly so, to the puzzlement or even hostility of many of their peers and colleagues.
These teachers, above all, love what they are doing, because in the very best sense of the word they genuinely love their students. They are deeply committed to sharing their passion with their students, and they have an enduring impact on people’s lives, especially in terms of inspiring them to continue to learn well after their formal education is concluded and examining their lives in deeply moral terms; that means to subject all their activities, including their personal and working lives, to careful scrutiny and to have the courage to make changes, even painful changes, when necessary. Excellent teachers like Coleman Brown throughout their careers hear from former students, sharing their triumphs and problems, and offering counsel and advice. They fully realize, and deeply enjoy, how teaching extends far beyond the formal limits of a specific curriculum or degree program.
Many such teachers work in K-12 schools throughout the country, but they face far greater barriers than their colleagues in colleges and universities. They have little control over the curriculum and much less academic freedom. They also encounter discipline problems and crowded classrooms. No matter how many attributes of great teaching they have, and no matter how powerful their passion and commitment, these institutional constraints inevitably contribute to burnout and limited effectiveness. Still, there are thousands of teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade who rise above these constraints and manage to inspire their students and who catalyze imagination, intellectual curiosity and moral sensitivity that can last entire lifetimes.
One of the biggest barriers in recent years is the national drive––“mania” is a more accurate term––for standardized testing in public schools. School administrators, public officials and well-heeled corporate backers of “educational reform” (some of whom really seek to destroy public education and create a privatization scheme that would only exacerbate existing inequalities) have jumped on this bandwagon in response to the profound deficiencies of American education. The inevitable result is that teachers throughout the country are compelled to “teach to the test,” especially if jobs and promotions are at stake. This inevitably detracts from their interest in establishing rapport with their students and instituting pedagogical and curricular innovations. It also leads to an overwhelming decline in morale and further diminishes the presence of the kind of excellence in teaching that Chris Hedges discussed in his essay.
The critique of the national testing phenomenon is well known and need not be repeated here. Many highly respected educational scholars including Henry Giroux and Diane Ravitch have persuasively revealed the profound educational, social, cultural and political consequences of this arrangement. When students spend a large portion of their time conflating academic achievement with test scores and data, they neglect to consider the growing inequalities of class, race, gender and educational opportunity in America.
Even the most vigorous opponents of this testing mania acknowledge that some educational accountability is necessary and desirable. Students and their teachers need mechanisms to gauge their effectiveness. But uniform standard testing fails to account for egregious differences in income and social class as well as differences in modes of individual learning. It deters effective teachers from organizing their professional lives to accommodate these differences and establish more realistic assessment measures. In short, it is a foolish policy that reduces and sometimes even eliminates critical thought and turns students into automatons, while consigning millions more to the margins of society and the economy.
I see the results routinely as a university teacher. Because so many of my undergraduates have done well, even spectacularly in standardized tests for 12 years or so, they think that exam taking will serve them effectively throughout their lives. They expect it to serve them in their postsecondary work, and often they are correct.
But not always. When I confront them with serious moral dilemmas and powerful political controversies, and ask them to write informed arguments, some of them are initially very flustered. This, after all, requires skills very different from studying for a multiple-choice exam. Many adapt well, but some never do. Even more distressing, some of my university students are so attuned to taking examinations in language arts and math that they have little knowledge of or interest in other areas of knowledge, especially history, science and the arts. This intellectual narrowness ill-equips them for life in the complex world of the 21st century.
Excellent teachers, at least in the early stage of college and university life, now have additional challenges in generating intellectual curiosity and refocusing students’ mindsets about what learning is really all about. Unless we begin the process of reversing this trend soon, it will scarcely matter whether there are women and men like Chris Hedges’ beloved teacher Coleman Brown. That would truly be a national tragedy.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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