My youngest son was a pole vaulter, and there was a point in his trajectory at which he seemed to defy gravity.
“You should see yourself,” I would say. “You were flying!”
My son’s response to such praise was a litany of things that had gone wrong, needed improvement, things he could have done better.
Some of us have a built-in resistance (or distrust?) of praise.
But my words came back to me on Thursday as my colleagues in Public Affairs and I wrapped up three days of photographing Wabash professors and their students as they worked together.
You should see yourselves.
You should see the intensity of Martin Madsen’s eyes as he engages his students in physics; the way Bobby Horton (talk about intensity!) shifts from one learning mode to the next to make sure his students understand a point; Dan Rogers quieting a normally talkative student and pointing to one more reserved who needs to learn to articulate his views; Maureen McColgin moving so fast you can’t keep up with her in lab as she answers students’ questions and brings them materials they needed; Larry Bennett’s love for the music as he guides his class through a symphony; Bob Foote taking time before class to help a student struggling with multi-variable calculus; Tobey Herzog drawing out student insights as he walks them through books whose authors he has interviewed, whose work he so clearly knows and respects.
Yeah, some of the guys were sleepy. A few were sick. Discussion doesn’t always go as hoped, the enthusiasm less than a teacher hopes for. The real world of fallible human beings.
But for so many, the teacher’s respect for the material, mastery of the subject, and commitment to giving these guys something worth holding on to, professionally or personally, breaks through.
And it’s contagious.
I think of Professor Madsen’s physics class, a student at the board writing out an equation with artful elegance. I remember another student in Professor Foote’s class asking “the next question” about an equation, pushing the example, and Bob’s smile as he admitted the equation didn’t really work in that particular application.
I’m a math idiot, but I know beauty and learning when I see them. That’s what Howard, Jim, and I saw these three days. Wabash is an engine of teachable moments, and watching that spark jump the gap over and over fires us up. Writing about them and photographing them is a great “job.” Writing to help that engine keep running, even more rewarding.
“Welcome to our lab,” Paul LePlae told me when I showed up late on Tuesday and things weren’t going exactly as he’d planned in class that day (which, by accident, gave me a chance to see just how good he is.)
“Thank you for visiting with us,” Agata Szczeszak-Brewer told me after skillfully leading her students through Joyce’s short stories, even though my presence had the potential of being a disruption to class discussion.
Thank you for allowing us to visit, for putting up with three guys lumbering about your classrooms with cameras.
In the end, there’s no way photographs can†do justice to what you do. That’s something only you and your students know. But in at least a few of the photos, I hope you can see in your colleagues and students the fire that burns in this place. For those of us who have worked outside of academia, it’s something we never take for granted. So much learning at such a pace is amazing to watch.
Some folks say that teaching is a lot like walking a tightrope, but you were flying.
You should see yourselves.
Click here for some photos from Day 3.
In photo: Professor Martin Madsen