Teaching Aspirations

The mission statement and educational objectives present my perspective on education in general and engineering education at The University of Tennessee in particular. The specific propositions listed below address the strategies that I have and will continue to follow. Most propositions are intended for self-application, as students often learn by example.

Preparedness. Being well-prepared is accomplished by striving to know the ‘how and why’ behind all things. As put by Confucius, “Scholars must devote their efforts to the roots; for once the roots are established, the Way will grow therefrom.”

Service. The most expeditious way to promote progress in science is to teach our students all that we have learned, withholding only the unnecessary. By giving them all that we have, we are constantly challenged to strive forward. As argued by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “The sage does not hoard. The more he/she does for others, the more his/her own bounty increases.”

Accountability. Neglecting promises made to students must be avoided in the spirit of instilling in them trust and love for research and education. Students view negligence as an extreme detail.

Moderation. Keeping in mind the physical time available to our students, a good policy is not to overburden them with redundant overloads.

Patience and Fairness. Particularly needed when dealing with students who require extra help.

Simplicity. A key to effective teaching: it is best materialized by envisioning the lecture to be planned from the angle of an average student. Selecting simple expressions, defining complex terms before using them, and making use of clear and meaningful examples can facilitate understanding and assimilation. Since the price we pay for life’s complexities is much too high, simplicity must not be underrated, and we are better off rejecting a thought that is too ambiguous to be expressed simply. The art lies, perhaps, in breaking down the abstract thoughts or equations into simpler ones from which a structure can emerge.  As eloquently stated by Karl Popper, “Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.”

Enthusiasm. An obvious but essential component of good teaching is a demonstrated concern and enthusiasm for the subject matter. It is amazing how profound this simple attribute can have on raising student interest in a given subject. Recalling with Emerson that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” we are reminded that sharing passion and excitement for mathematics, science, and engineering can be one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

Style. The preferred lecture format is where notes are referred to only to outline the day’s topics. This requires additional preparation per lecture, committing to memory equations, procedures, and details to be covered in class. Nonetheless, this style minimizes idle time, permits teachers to integrate ideas covered at different junctures, and enhances interaction with students. Conveying information in a logical and effective manner is, of course, only one aspect of a teacher’s role; equally important is the development of problem solving skills, and style modifications to facilitate student learning. The style of the teacher has to be dynamic, especially when realizing that knowledge is an individual, unpredictable act of genius that is not just limited to verifiable statements.

Cura Personalis. ‘Care for the person,’ which expresses the approach to education that I believe in, reflects a mission to care for the development of the whole person. This principle encompasses a classroom environment where concern and respect for the student are paramount; at The University of Tennessee students are treated as individuals, and as individuals, it is recognized that their needs are varied and their interests diverse. Such an environment can be established in numerous ways: (i) finding student preferences before setting office hours for the semester; (ii) giving choices in the selection of test dates to avoid conflicts; (iii) conducting informal external review sessions before exams; and (iv) consistently striving to acquire and incorporate student feedback in all aspects of classroom endeavor. Genuine concern can also be demonstrated by providing personal telephone numbers for emergencies, contacting them periodically to check on their progress, determining their needs, even when unasked, and caring for their personal fortune, comfort, and success in their daily business. Excellent teachers can have different personalities and teaching styles; but in reflection, they all share a common trait, they all care very much.

Magis.  Meaning ‘more’ or ‘excellence in all things,’ reflects an inner desire to maintain the highest quality in all aspects of teaching. This aspiration can be summarized in Morley Callaghan’s famous quote that can be paraphrased into, “Whatever it takes, the real friends of their country are those who believe in excellence, seek for it, fight for it, defend it, and try to produce it.”