The humanness of teaching

Today was a good day.  I just finished my qualifying exam and successfully defended my dissertation prospectus.  Whew.  A sigh of relief literally left my body yesterday as soon as it was all over, and now I can begin moving forward in the process of getting my Ph.D.  The process was unpleasant but good, and I am glad to say that I have survived.

Stamina.  It seems to be one of the strongest traits necessary to surviving graduate school.  I like that the definition of stamina is “the capability of sustaining prolonged stressful effort.”  Despite the difficulty of the many hurdles I have faced, it seems that just merely surviving the criticism and nerve-wracking presentations amongst seas of bright intellectuals is what helps you make it or break it.

But despite all of my focus on research the past several months, I turned inward a little bit and outward as well today as I reflected on my role as a teacher.  To me, research defines who I am and in many ways I both prefer researching over teaching and see myself as a better researcher than teacher.  I’ve often wondered why this is the case?  In some ways, I just love researching.  In other ways, it feels more prestigious, more rewarding.  This is ironic considering that my harshest amount of criticism comes from fellow researchers in the world of academia toward both the manuscripts I write and the presentations I give.  But today was one of those days where I sat down and contemplated how important the role is of teaching someone else.  And I was reminded that I love teaching.

I have many, albeit scattered, thoughts on the subject: what is the purpose of higher education?  Just the other day, my colleagues and I at the Academy for Teaching and Learning got into a passionate discussion on what the purpose of a liberal arts education is.  Coincidentally, my students just wrote journal reflection questions on this very topic.  I was moved by their responses and reminded that my role here is to broaden the worldviews of these young, bright individuals.  Most of them discussed how a liberal education was designed to develop critical thinking, help them know how to problem solve in any situation, and broaden their worldviews by seeing others’ points of views.  Stunned.  Astounded.  Such young, bright minds ready and hungry to learn.  In many ways, I have forgotten about that hunger to just learn.  Amongst all of the various roles I am asked to play and all the publications I seek, I have forgotten about the valuable and privileged role I play both as a learner and an educator.

One student made me stop still in my tracks as I read his response to the question about liberal education.  He stated, “I have experienced poverty and so I know that the most valuable asset one can have is an education.”  Wow.  Bravo.  To live so deeply and appreciate so much is moving and almost unheard of in this culture that has all but taken higher education for granted.  I see this student in the classroom, so eager to learn and embrace every opportunity handed to him, and my spirit is encouraged.

Other students discussed their vulnerable feelings of emotions during their first few weeks in college: nervous, overwhelmed, scared they won’t make friends, excited for the opportunities awaiting them.  I could not believe the number of students who stated that they were here to just learn and take in everything they were passionate about.  They stated that they were not just here to get a degree and move on, but they were here to be changed.  Imagine that – education changing you.  Education changing you and you changing the world.  And I get to be a part of that change!  I get to be a catalyst that helps kindle their passions.  But only if I allow myself to.  If I continue to just show up and do a “good lesson,” I’ll miss my opportunity and more importantly, the entire purpose of higher education.  What a privilege it is to be entrusted with young minds.  Like Socrates, I hope to corrupt these youth while I inform them of the possibilities and other worlds out there.  My hope is to cheer them on along the sidelines as I shout, “go, go go!”  But part of me worries that this passionate dream is dying because of, sadly, people like myself.  People who get so caught up in their research careers that they forget the importance of teaching.  You see, it is when I’m teaching that I feel most human.  Life on life connection.  This is real stuff.  Real change.  And I forge onward in this quest of learning with my students.  Because, education is after all, “the most valuable asset one can have…”

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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