Home » A View from Kirkland HallSpring 2011

A View from Kirkland Hall

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At home these days, we have been reflecting on the formative relationships with teachers that forever influence students’ lives. My husband, Paul Young, is, like me, an Arts and Science faculty member: Paul is an associate professor of English, director of our dynamic Film Studies program, and a scholar and teacher of early cinema.

Paul and I have been the beneficiaries of formative teaching throughout our lives, and we both seek to give back in turn. When Paul’s dissertation advisor, Professor Miriam Bratu Hansen of the University of Chicago, recently passed away, I recalled the passing in 2009 of my own dissertation advisor, Professor Barbara Johnson of Harvard. At the same time, I look forward to travel to Boston later this year to join in the retirement celebration for another Doktormutter, Professor Judith Wilt at Boston College. Many (many!) years ago, Judith was the endlessly patient and kind adviser to my endlessly long undergraduate thesis on Virginia Woolf.

Students often realize what is truly great about great teaching only years later. This is certainly true for me and for Paul as we reflect on the gifts given us by our early mentors. For in fact, truly great teachers are often those who are courageous enough to let their students make their own mistakes and then fumble their way back. It takes guts for a teacher to let a student flail, and it takes patience and confidence. Great teachers are in it for the long haul. They have the faith that the “a ha” moment will come eventually, perhaps even years after the class has ended, the honors thesis defended, the dissertation filed. Perhaps they won’t even be around to bear witness, or to be thanked, or to be argued with. But they know it will happen. How fortunate the students gifted with this trust, and how subtle the lessons that unfold over hours, days and decades.

In this issue of Arts and Science, you will read about the scholar-teachers that represent the ideal Vanderbilt faculty member. Vanderbilt faculty are held to equally high standards in their research and their teaching, and Arts and Science prides itself on this fact. This is a daily expectation, to be sure, but it is also a criterion for faculty tenure and promotion: both excellence in research and a high degree of effectiveness in teaching are required, and superior achievement in one of those categories cannot supplement deficiencies in the other. Simply put, Arts and Science faculty must be stars in two firmaments: in the classroom and in their scholarship.

For the faculty profiled in the pages that follow, teaching and research are symbiotic. Excellence in one area is the complement—the necessary partner—to excellence in the other. Leaders at the forefront of discovery in their scholarly disciplines are exactly the people I want in the front of our lecture halls and seminar tables teaching our students. A senior thesis adviser or a dissertation adviser should be the very same person creating new knowledge in his or her field of study. While there’s no doubt that profound teaching occurs every day in our classrooms and offices, the real mystery—what we must take on faith—is that the full realization of great teaching is the work of a lifetime. This is just one more lesson learned, many years after the fact, from Miriam, Barbara and Judith, and for this I thank them.

Carolyn Dever

photo credit: Daniel Dubois

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