teaching in excellence award | oakland university 2012
No one could have been more surprised to win the Excellence in Teaching Award as I, given the arduous path that led to my doctorate degree at age 50. More than ever, I am humbled to know that my students and colleagues could esteem me by nomination alone, to say nothing of the Committee who selected me for the award. While I am mindful of the rewards of my particular profession with every class I teach, or every encounter with a student, whether seeing them on campus, or meeting to discuss an issue, the Excellence in Teaching Award is a proud and humbling achievement. I have reflected deeply on the journey that brought me to this destination.
I think that the greatest asset I possess as a teacher is a love of learning inspired by my father and mother as a child, and sustained by their constant encouragement throughout my life. My father was an immigrant from a poor village in Bucovina, Romania, who did not have a formal education. Rather he received his education from the School of Life, as he often remarked. He remains the most intelligent, creative, accomplished and humble man I have ever had the honor to know. My mother was the child of immigrants who loved attending school, but often expressed the frustration of not being able to turn to her parents for help with homework. Yet between the two of them, they offered constant reinforcement, stressing always the importance of learning, not just from books, but from life experience as well. I realize at every turn how right they were when they would tell us “Learn how to do this, because you never know what life will bring.”
Life intervened in ways I simply did not anticipate, but I quickly found my parents’ lessons and encouragement all the preparation I would need. That, and a bag of tools, and my accordion.
I completed my undergraduate education at Oakland at a time when single mothers were more the exception than the rule. I found work assembling parts for GM in my garage so I could keep my sons close, take care of the house (using my bag of tools), take classes, and study. Then I became a self-employed cook, and later, an adjunct faculty at Wayne State, and the College for Creative Studies, to name a few. I quickly cultivated the art of solving problems by honing my critical thinking skills, and this became my bedrock for what I would do later, as a professor. I would put the emphasis on making knowledge valuable for enhancing critical thinking skills. One of the greatest obstacles I continuously face as an instructor is the perceived attitude by students that what they are learning is useless. As someone who engaged in many years of study, while dealing with a wide range of problems, from the irritating to the tragic, I can sympathize to a degree. I have been at the receiving end of teachers who, though well intentioned, simply teach a student what to think about a particular subject, rather than teach them how to think. For instance, I had an accelerated English class in my senior year of high school and the teacher insisted there was only one way to interpret a poem. I tried in vain to convince her otherwise, until someone suggested I go to the library and find a legitimate source that backed up my opinion. Years later at university, I had a professor who rejected an essay because it contradicted her opinion. Recalling my experience in high school, I consulted the philosophy department here, at Oakland, to teach me how to defend my paper using the tools of logic. The professor in question, acquiesced. That was as illuminating a moment of discovery for me, as the day I first changed my spark plugs in order to start my car.
Since I was a non-traditional student, I had the benefit of living a harsh reality on the one hand, where my life demanded self-reliance, and the challenges of meeting academic requirements that promised a better future on the other. Throughout the whole experience of earning my graduate degrees, I observed constantly the quality of instruction, and the attitudes of my classmates—many of whom were typically younger. It became very clear to me that the greatest service I could provide for future students was to find ways of making instruction relevant, rather than rely solely on theory and opinion. And this borrowed heavily on my natural tendencies towards interdisciplinary techniques.
Because my parents encouraged me to embrace my talents, I studied music and art without formal instruction. I didn’t have to be enrolled in a formal class on painting to pick up a paint brush and canvas. But while I did take accordion lessons (something I once saw as an unforgivable exercise in madness, but later discovered was a valuable means of mental and physical discipline), I undertook other instruments on my own. Almost as if magically, I found a way to recognize critical intersections between different skills, which translated into interdisciplinarianism; ironically, it was a concept I practiced intuitively before I learned the word that described it. In other words, the key to learning is learning how to think, instead of what to think, drawing from an endless resource of knowledge and information. By the time I was preparing my dissertation, itself, an interdisciplinary project (hard won, I might add), I had already developed a pedagogical strategy that continues to make my every class as fresh and rewarding an experience for most of my students and me.
All instructors appreciate the challenge of teaching General Education courses. Students seem to be consumed with their compartmentalized majors, and see the gen eds as useless. But this is a case in point for preparing students to enhance their fields of specialization, not impede them. For example, Modern Literature is more than a mere subject that involves what we think about the material, for indeed, many students simply don’t like the literature instructors choose. Yet in framing the material as an opportunity to explore how we may think about the material, a world of useful intersections presents itself. For Biology students, often far removed from the styles and genres of Modern Literature, we can suggest the ways in which reactions to the great flu pandemic contributed to a society’s reaction and response to an age that included world war, advances in science, the Great Depression, the rise of communism, and other subjects. For Engineering students, we can investigate the role structural and innovative advances impact metaphysical conceits; there is similar structure and metaphysics in a poem or short story. Modern Literature, therefore, becomes a lens through which we can register critical thinking skills as we read the individual and collective interpretations of the issues of that period. As a result, we can explore ideas against the challenges of our own current age. A simple gen ed course becomes a useful tool in our tool bag in order to start our brains, and make our minds more efficient.
My father passed away a few months before I received my doctorate, but my mother was my honored guest when I received the Excellence in Teaching Award. In many ways, that moment eclipsed my dissertation defense because it validated the most important aspect of the greatest lesson my parents and a handful of teachers from grade school through graduate school taught me; a lesson I practice in every class, with every student: not what to think, but how to think. When we learn how to think, we know what do to. And this is wisdom we can possess long before we graduate from university.