My Turn to Teach

14 March 2014
President Steve Poskanzer

Teaching is at the very soul of Carleton. Our reputation and pride are built on the quality of our teaching. And it is the fundamental consideration when we award tenure to a faculty member. While scholarship and creative activity are also important in tenure decisions, their significance stems in no small part from how such intellectual activity helps ensure continued excellence in teaching.

This past fall, I taught my first course at Carleton: a seminar on “Legal Issues in Higher Education” in the political science department. Although I’ve made a point of teaching at every college or university where I’ve worked, I felt an even higher level of commitment—and maybe some heightened anxiety—as I entered the classroom here.

Why do I teach?  First of all, because I love to share with students a subject that I know well and that I think is important and relevant in their lives and careers. In addition, though, teaching lets me come to know a broader cross section of students. Typically, students who come to the president’s office fall into two broad categories: those who are eager to get to know me or seek my advice and counsel, and those who are not happy about something and want me to fix it.

While I genuinely enjoy meeting with both types of students, they tend not to be a complete representation of the student body. By teaching a class, I come to know more students—or old acquaintances in new ways. I get to observe students’ intellectual qualities and talents. I witness the type of questions they ask, how well they write, and how well they play with others in an intellectual sandbox. I also gain perspective on how skilled they are at sharing their ideas, how thick-skinned they are when those ideas get critiqued, and how sharp they are in their reasoning and debating.

With these valuable data points from my classroom teaching, I have a clearer understanding of the joys (and occasional frustrations) that Carleton faculty members experience in their teaching. I better appreciate the need for pedagogical support and the value of classroom innovation. Finally, by demonstrating my own commitment to teaching, I honor what my colleagues on the faculty accomplish and experience at the core of their work.

It was a privilege to teach the students in my seminar. They were serious, reflective, and intense. They earnestly took up the issues and debated them thoughtfully and passionately. We had fierce discussions about the value of affirmative action (and what would happen if the Supreme Court struck it down), whether tenure is necessary to promote academic freedom, and about what types of constraints colleges and universities should place on student behavior. Like many a Carleton professor before me, I was challenged by the fact that I had more material to cover than the limited class time allowed.  

When our discussion was going especially well, no one—including me!—wanted to leave when the class period ended. Instead, almost all of us would stay for an extra half hour to continue our discussion. To be honest, I’d never experienced such a level of engagement and intellectual curiosity before. This made me very proud of our students—and grateful that I was able to work with them in the classroom. I can’t wait to teach this course again, and I am already full of ideas for new readings and creative assignments that will improve it the next
time around.

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