Teaching is a privilege
Higher education is one of the last areas of our society
from which accountability has been demanded.
For decades we drifted along, secure in our ways, doing what we had always done. Then, 15 or 20 years ago, governing boards and state legislatures began saying, OK, you say you are good teachers, and that what you do has a positive effect on students' future lives, but now you need to show us.
Public accountability of public institutions is a good thing. Fact is, in a democracy it is a necessary thing. And so, while we had some hurt feelings and did some grumbling about it, we developed assessment tools and evaluation instruments that tell us whether students are learning what we want them to learn and whether they think they're getting what they, and their parents, are paying for.
This is all to the good, but the problem is that it tries to objectify a subjective experience teaching and learning. It tries to put numbers on a process that is, in important ways, particular to each individual.
I have been privileged to be at NDSU for 26 years, and I am less sure about what good teaching is than I was the day I arrived. I admire colleagues who are dynamic and laid back, funny and serious, demanding and permissive, technologically sophisticated and technologically illiterate. The only common element I can see in these individuals in this most individualistic of professions is that they all like young people, and they all share a joy in the process of learning and discovery.
If you like young people, college teaching is one of the best jobs on earth, because not only do you get to work with them, but you get to do so at a time when they are reinventing themselves. After being defined by their parents, and then by their peers, they now have the opportunity to define themselves. They get into classes where they can really interact with teachers and engage materials, instead of thinking about the big game or the senior prom, and something clicks. They begin to appreciate learning and to see its relevance in their lives. Good teachers can see this happening, and share the joy of the experience, because it happened to them, too, usually in the same way.
One of the things I have learned about teaching over the years is that good teachers are pretty much wasted if you don't have good learners, and we have very good learners at NDSU.
I have sometimes said that at NDSU we get good young people and try not to screw them up. I'm only being half facetious when I say that. NDSU students come with the tools to learn. They are as well prepared by the secondary schools as any students in any region of the country. They are ready to do the hard work they need to do to get an NDSU degree and make no mistake, NDSU is a tough school.
And our students are just plain good kids. They are people of honesty and integrity. They are down-to-earth people. They respect their families and communities. And they revere education and what it can do for them.
One reason the faculty here relates well to NDSU students is that most of us are the same kind of people. Most of us don't have an overly-inflated view of ourselves, and we include far more overachievers than underachievers. Many of us were first-generation college students, and we understand the opportunities and responsibilities that involves. And many of us got our starts in land-grant schools like NDSU sometimes at NDSU itself.
And what can you expect when you get to the other side of this process? Well, the first thing you can expect is a degree what my Mom used to call the middle class union card. And it's a valuable degree. Employers like the fact that this is a place where bright young people come and work hard to succeed. When they tell you at graduation that you are now equipped to compete with graduates from any university in the country, they're not pulling your leg. The accomplishments of our alums show that is absolutely true.
You will also come out with friends, memories and perhaps a spouse that will last a lifetime. But you should also come out with some less tangible but equally important products. You should come out with an appreciation for learning and well-earned sense of accomplishment. You should have a fuller understanding of human nature and human diversity, and of the natural and social world in which you live. You should have a greater appreciation for family and community, and a willingness to give something back. In short, you should have some of the tools for living as well as for making a living.
Like I said, I'm not sure how all of this happens, and I certainly couldn't put a number on it, I just know it does happen. And in the happening it gives both of us, students and faculty, gifts we will cherish forever.
- David Danbom