I’ve been thinking a great deal over the past several weeks about what I am thankful about for having worked at UMPI for over 20 years now in several different roles—professor, provost, now president. And as I was thinking about what to write for this end-of-the-semester issue, I looked through columns I had written for the University Times many years ago (I wrote a column for several years that I called “Notes from a Mad English Professor,” thinking that I was quite witty at the time—oh well…). And one I found is worth reprinting in part because it was about what it was like to teach at UMPI—and why teaching here was at times different from other institutions and why that was a very good thing. Reading it over again this afternoon, some 15 years later (!), reminds me of how important, how challenging and how rewarding teaching is at UMPI. And how much I admire the faculty here at UMPI who, day in and day out, do even more than I recorded all those years ago…
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When I think back to my undergraduate school days and try to imagine what I must have thought back then that the life of a college professor would entail, I envision something quite different from the reality of teaching at UMPI.
At Dickinson College, where I went as an undergraduate, professors mainly professed—which means they taught three classes two or three days a week, held a couple of office hours and served on a smattering of committees over the years.
None of my professors would imagine that teaching four courses a semester, running an honors program, helping to produce a play, delivering papers at conferences, taking students to still more conferences, planning yet another conference and helping out with University Day, along with advising the campus student newspaper (I’m forgoing the smattering of committee work), would entail a single semester’s labor. But so it does.
And, truth again be told, I’m glad it does. Because it’s in all that so-called “extra” work that some of the most extraordinary learning occurs.
For, as I’ve learned, academic institutions don’t simply provide learning environments: they offer either opportunities for or impediments to learning. What may seem like “privileges” at schools like my old alma mater are in many ways impediments: at the end of their (four hour) day, many Dickinson professors packed up their leather briefcases and headed home. Contact between faculty and student was often severely limited to the classroom (and maybe, for a few moments, the office) itself. Nor was it really their fault (if one wants to call such a situation a faulty one): it was the cultural clime; it was what was expected; it was custom.
The custom at UMPI is vastly different. For a myriad of reasons, the rules of my alma maters wouldn’t work here, and, as I’ve discovered over the past five years, I’m particularly glad they don’t. Five years ago, I simply had no conception how much more I would know today—and how much of that knowledge would reach far beyond the tiny little realm of my “area of specialization” (Shakespearean and Elizabethan drama). Some of my old grad school friends chuckle when I tell them I’ve acted in a couple of plays (OK, so my “acting” was an insult to thespians everywhere, but at least I tried): but I can’t remember a more rewarding experience in all my years of studying drama than working with the casts of “Twelfth Night” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Watching a collection of individuals come together as a cast, watching a simple script actually become a performance, watching people learn, day by day, how to live their characters—that’s a truly radical, authentic education, and one that we (as instructors) can never accomplish from the sidelines. That is, not if we hope to remember what it is to be a student—something that none of us can ever afford to forget.
And thus my thanks to each of those budding thespians; my thanks to the University Times staff; my thanks to all of the students who allowed me the privilege of journeying with them to conferences (some close, some far); my thanks, too, to each student who, daily, helps make my classrooms their own spaces of adventure, where (hopefully) some of what we study regularly carries over into the “real” world. They remind me, continually, what teaching is really all about: they provide the truly authentic educational experiences.
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One of the things that is truly remarkable about UMPI—and still is, some 15 years after I wrote those words up above—is the time and care that faculty take with students, their classes and their programs. My experience was in no way unique (although that younger, rather callow version of myself probably felt it was pretty unique at the time!)—that “extra” work that faculty do is exactly what makes the UMPI experience special, whether it’s mentoring a University Times staff, taking students to conferences and workshops, doing research with students or guiding them through internships—that is truly what makes it rewarding to be a faculty member here at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
So best of luck this end of the semester, to both students and their faculty—and it will be great to see all of you in the New Year!