As a tenured professor, I submit a triennial portfolio to monitor my progress. These are usually fairly antiseptic pieces, which cite metrics and data and are full of boasting about how we are without being too over-the-top. I wrote something like that when I went up for tenure, but now that I have tenure I used the chance to do something more expansive and non-traditional. I’m publishing it here because right now the moment to say some things and challenge academic ways of thinking about teaching effectiveness really matter. At least to me. I’m hoping it’ll inspire some of my academic friends too, particularly those at the start of your tenure journey. You don’t have to do it the way everyone else did; I wish this had been the piece I’d written when I went up for tenure.
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A couple days ago I was thinking back to my job interview here at Lehigh in 2008. I was a young(er), fresh-faced PhD student earnestly seeking the privilege of being a professor right in the middle of what was then the worst recession of my lifetime. One of my standout meetings during those grueling two days was a private sitdown with Anne Meltzer, then the dean of our Arts & Sciences College. Lehigh was my fourth campus visit in two weeks, and I thought I had heard every question by that point, but she asked me something I will never forget.
“When you retire someday, what do you want to be known for?”
I hesitated. I had to think. This was peak Anne Meltzer, a dean whose leadership I still admire because she had a gift for bringing the most vital parts of you to the surface. What followed was what came to me naturally, unchained and unguarded because I hadn’t prepared to be asked that question. My answer, for the record, was an expansive hope — maybe it was a wish, I don’t know — about how I wanted to be the kind of professor that made my students want to be better journalists, citizens, community members and parents. I wanted to be someone who was remembered fondly when they thought about their alma mater. I wanted my work with them to matter for something beyond the rote assembly of knowledge.
I tell this story because I am writing this at a very different time yet with some of the same hopes, albeit with a bit more data to tell me how I’m doing on that front. We are, yet again, in the worst recession of my lifetime. A pandemic has closed Lehigh, cut me off from my students, and forced us into a virtual Zoom-driven dance to keep this whole thing going even as the world feels like it’s unraveling around us. Like many of my colleagues, I spent last summer working from home — and for free, a sign of our dedication — asking what the most vital thing about our classes is in an attempt to convert the on-campus experience to a meaningful online experience
I came prepared to write about my success. The kids these days would say this section should be a #humblebrag, a list of all my accomplishments. They’d also point out I have receipts in that regard. A university teaching award. Stellar teaching evaluations. Students plan their yearly schedule around the desire to take my senior seminar on Internet culture. Hashtag I’m awesome.
The data is there. You have my packet, and it feels redundant to point out the highlights. When I went up for tenure, I dutifully did just that. But I am having a hard time with words on this section in 2020.
Last week a student wrote to me saying her laptop was busted. She is, to me, a sign of how Lehigh has changed for the better compared to when I first started. She comes from a difficult financial situation, and is a Black 1st-generation college student. She has thrived despite enormous challenges just to be here, and now in a time when the laptop is more central to everything we do here, she’s lost her one device that she can’t lose. The good news is I have tools to help her now. I know a lot about the university structure, what funds exist, and whom to contact. I spent a lot of time on the phone, writing notes, working with her to make sure this was resolved. None of that is technically my job or on any type of contract I ever signed, but I would be a terrible teacher if I saw my work merely as assigning grades.
When we shifted online last spring, I made it a point to radically alter expectations in my class. I had a seminar full of seniors who had started the term with big dreams for their final semester and the hope of a joyous commencement full of hugs and recognition of their accomplishments. All of that was wiped away by a virus. In the first session after spring break, I asked them to make three things their north star for the final seven weeks: resilience, communication, and empathy. The moment offers them a chance for self-reflection, to see how a social crisis lays bare the inequities of our world, and the chance to see both new solutions and the inspiring way they can help bring about needed change as we emerge from this crisis. As I read the student notes of thanks after the semester, they had me crying. “You get it,” said one. Another wrote, “This whole spring has been horrible, but coming to this class offered a break from it all. You focused on what matters.”
There are a lot of words in those previous three paragraphs. I’m telling these stories in part to illustrate what I do and why I do it. Again, you have the numbers and the award data (to reiterate, I am quite good at teaching!) but I have the luxury of not focusing on the self-aggrandizing details at this point. None of the antiseptic ways academics talk about what I do tells you about how I approach my job, and it’s hard to sum up my relationships with students into something parsimonious without doing it injustice. And it certainly feels incongruous for the moment, given all we are facing as professors.
I think back to what I told Anne that day, the desire to create better journalists, citizens, community members and parents in the students I taught. Since then, as part of my work on the University Future task force, I’ve explored some of Asa Packer’s thinking on what he saw in Lehigh’s founding. He spoke of the desire to contribute to the “intellectual and moral improvement” in both students but also the surrounding Lehigh Valley. In his thinking, I focus on two important realities that track with my own teaching goals. The first is the need to educate the whole person. We don’t think in terms of our own discipline or a particular list of skills, though those things are vocationally important. We want the curriculum to be integrated in other areas of a graduate’s thinking, that they become intelligent but also moral people ready to lead in multiple dimensions. The second part of Packer’s charge was that these whole people we are trying to train, that they have an impact on the community and society. His vision is that Lehigh graduates would change their community for the better by virtue of how we train them.
I just began my 12th year of teaching here at Lehigh. I’ve always been something of an idealist, probably to a fault. But the longer I do this and the older I get, the more I feel a sense of urgency that goes beyond grades and mere curriculum. Our world is burning, quite literally. We have enormous problems related to climate change, racial justice, a collapsing democracy and economic inequality while ignorance and toxic discourse is celebrated. At the heart of so many of our unsolved social problems is my own discipline, the work in informing the public and offering spaces for both community and national dialogue on these issues. My own specialty, social networks, offers so much promise for an informed public and dialogue but is increasingly being weaponized by bad actors due to inept or indifferent management by tech companies. The mediated “marketplace of ideas” that we talk about in my introductory Media And Society class is increasingly in question because we lack a media literate public and platforms for the type of open, honest conversation imagined by John Milton.
Look, there are curricular ways to deal with these problems. But tenure gives me license to beg of myself and anyone else that we zoom out a bit. I’m interested in something much bigger than schooling my students on the greatest hits in communication and journalism praxis. I want to train people to think more fully about this heavily mediated world they live in, their place in it, and the ways we need them to go out and change it.
For example, I’m increasingly talking about parenting in my classes, not the least of which because my kids have enjoyed Zoom-bombing my classes during the pandemic. In my Internet Culture class as well as the Black Mirror & The Digital Self freshman seminar I taught a few years ago, we have extensive discussions about raising children in the age of the internet. I ask them to identify how they were raised and they quickly realize that parents today are making up a lot of this as we go while hewing to a life and moral philosophy they constructed long before their baby held their first smartphone. I point them to technology that is coming, raise types of questions they will have to deal with someday, and gently point out they will be making it up as they go too. Will this make them better media professionals someday? Debatable. It’s certainly not what they have in mind when they talk to me as high school seniors on Candidates Day. But my own belief is I have to play a role in shaping how they approach what is new during a time of great change, to ask themselves who they are now and by what charge we ought to live. I lean into sharing my own experiences as a parent and an adult who grew and evolved over the years, offering insights based on things I wish I knew at age 20. These students are not itching to be parents any time soon, but many will be someday. Regardless, I am training citizens and hopefully leaders for the future.
The radical thing about my classes is my students teach me too. I came into teaching thinking of myself as fairly progressive. My students have changed me for the better. Discussions in classes, when they are truly open, allow students the safety and space to share their own experiences. What I learned made me reflect a lot on my own ignorance, my own miseducation, and my own hypocrisy. I’m ashamed to say it took me well into tenure track to see my own privilege for what it is, but I am better for it and constantly being changed by this realization. It’s my hope that this serves as a type of model for my students, how embracing weakness isn’t weak and being open to the world can make a person better but also that how we proceed matters more than the epiphany. I’m sure they don’t all get the message. I’m positive some of them roll their eyes. But the thing about education is that it sticks with a person. My students hate — haaaaaaaaate — the workload in my Multimedia Storytelling course. But they come back years later and say it’s the thing that prepared them most skills-wise for their job. My hope is that on the whole-person front, those life lessons modeled work in similar fashion.
I have learned that I bring more than just journalism expertise to the classroom. A place like Lehigh encourages me to bring my whole self too; that’s one reason I love teaching here so much. I wrestle with how to parent in these times. I still knee-jerk respond to things emotionally. I wrestle a lot with the religious world I grew up in, trying to reconcile that with who I am now and make sense of my place in my own story. This sounds like classes are a confessional or therapy, but that isn’t quite right. Perhaps the best descriptor is that it’s non-hierarchical. If students need me as a professor to have all the answers, they are quickly educated on that dim prospect. Instead, my own classroom ethic is to make clear that the questions don’t stop just because you have a degree, let alone several of them. This is preparation for life, I hope.
The beauty of training the moral person via education is that nobody has the lock on what is moral, that in fact it’s the struggle to avoid leaning too much into certainty that is too easy to fall into as we come to know things. I come with my own imperfections and blind spots. I still am too much of a loudmouth and need to listen better. Education offers nothing more than a forum to ask questions, share experiences, sharpen our thinking and challenge our priors. What we do with that forum matters, but it is not neutral. It can be used to improve us — all of us, even professors — and there is value in the process as well as the end result. But it also can be used to increase inequities, to cement or reinforce some of the worst ills in the academy and society. It is, in that sense, a dangerous kind of blank slate and I have come to approach that with a bit more reverence than I did as a 35-year-old know-it-all right out of PhD school. The classroom, this vocation, this calling of mine is sacred to me. I never intentionally disrespected it, but I understand its power far more than I used to and approach that with great care.
Anne asked the question I try to answer every day. These times are sobering. I go down this dark path more than I should at age (looks it up) 46. COVID-19 could take me tomorrow, and what is my legacy as a professor and mentor?
I don’t know the reality of it. I hope time and grace affords me a lot more runway to figure that part out, and if not students will make it up as they go. What I have is the work and my approach. The standard asked for descriptions of significance and impact, and I can’t think of anything more significant than a pedagogy that trains the whole person for the challenges society faces today and tomorrow. By this point, my students know my classes are geared toward teaching whole people, asking hard questions about the world they hope to lead. They know when things get rough — like, I don’t know, a generation-defining pandemic that sends the world into a tailspin — I’m going to retrofit my entire teaching approach to make sure they have what they need to thrive in the moment and grow in the direction they need to grow for when the good times return. Finally, they know what I know deep down inside — that my legacy is them. To the degree I’m successful, it’ll be reflected in the lives they lead and the problems they will solve. That’s what’s getting me out of bed for that 20-foot walk to my Zoom cove for classes, and it’ll bring me back once this pandemic is over. Good god, I miss the classroom.