Honors Day, March 21, 2012
Teaching Excellence Award Speech
By Carrie-Ann Biondi, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Thank you Dr. LeBesco, and thanks also to the faculty who nominated me for this award—Mark Conard, Judy Hanks, and Adrienne Bell—the alums who wrote lovely letters on my behalf, and the members of the selection committee (Brad Herling, Laura Tropp, and Ghassan Shabaneh). It's overwhelming to be honored in this way when I'm surrounded by such outstanding faculty, and when I still have so much to learn about teaching.
I begin with a little story about how and why I became a teacher, for I think it says a lot about my teaching philosophy. There are two things about my childhood that make me incredibly fortunate. The first is that my Mom did not push her dreams on me; instead, she always told me that I should pursue whatever made me truly happy. The second is that I figured out early on what that was. You see, I've known since I was five-years old that I wanted to be a teacher. I didn't know until graduate school, when I changed my major yet again, that I would teach philosophy, but the teaching part's been set for a long time. School was an enchanted realm where marks on a page came to life, taking me on merry voyages with Pippi Longstocking, perplexing trails with Sherlock Holmes and Trixie Belden, and back in time to the age of dinosaurs. Those wonderful books at school each had a person behind them teaching me that the world and books and people contain treasures we can seek out and be transformed by. My first student was my brother, Richard, who's a year younger than me. I'd race home from school, Hermione-like, and sit my brother down with workbooks I'd created to teach him spelling, math, and history. I was thrilled when he'd understand something new, and challenged to figure out a new way of going at it when he didn't. He'd sometimes ask me things I didn't know, which sent me back to the library to figure out how to answer his questions, which led me to discover new ones I didn't realize I'd had. School was a magical place and I knew I wanted to stay there all my life. That's how I got hooked on teaching. Thanks to Mom for showing me how powerful it is for someone to allow you the space to become who you are, and to Richard for showing me that in order to teach well teachers must remain alive to learning.
Those were the first wobbly steps along my teaching journey that began nearly forty years ago. Since then, two things have emerged as central to my attitude toward teaching: gratitude and risk. I'm grateful for every course I teach and for every student I have the honor of working with. Each class meeting of every course is a unique and unrepeatable occasion for transformation. Fostering the potential that such occasions have, takes more than doing lots of research and assigning carefully selected texts. It is true, as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in "The American Scholar," that "Colleges . . . can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame." However, I understand those rays of genius that we gather here to extend beyond the great texts of our traditions. Our students, too, are rays of genius. This day—Honors Day—gathers together in concentrated fashion and celebrates the genius of these young men and women. They inspire me by their dynamic and thoughtful openness to the world. Their probing questions, eager faces, and shining example challenge me to do my best.
Because I recognize my students as active participants in their learning, I've adopted a largely Socratic way of teaching. This pedagogy is not only demanding, but also risky. It depends on so many things that are outside of my control: Have the students read that day? What did they think of the reading? How will they express what they're thinking? What questions will they pose for all of us to consider together? What if someone utters something not quite on point? One has to be prepared for just about anything. I'm often surprised and exhilarated by questions and interpretations I'd never considered that get surfaced in our conversations and lead us in directions unforeseen. In order to reach the exuberant heights of learning that this method makes possible, one must always remain open to the possibility of failure that risk involves. Goodness knows that some of my pedagogical experimentation has gone awry—as when my Great Questions assignment backfired on account of students' fears that their questions wouldn't be so great, or when some In-Class Writings I designed were more suitable for graduate students than freshmen. Such failures, though, can be embraced as occasions for learning things that couldn't be gotten in any other way. As J. K. Rowling—that master craftswoman of magical words—insightfully remarked: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default." Eschewing caution in teaching, I ask my students to be courageous, to lift their eyes to the best within themselves, and to be assured that I strive wholeheartedly to mentor them in their quest. What they stand to gain is nothing less than an independent mind and a life well lived.