Todd Pagano - Acceptance Speech

2012 Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year
Todd Pagano
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

"Three to four minutes"...that is the amount of time I have been given for my remarks. The students who politely remain in the classroom as I run long in every allotted class period can certainly appreciate my need for a time constraint. A distinguished guest of mine, former American Chemical Society President and current NTID National Advisory Group member, Dr. Katie Hunt, can surely relate-and has a timer on her laser pointer without which she would never give a presentation. I am going to use a bit more primitive approach to time management.  (Pagano lights candle). But wait...my wife and just about every other guest at my tables are well aware that I burn the candle at both ends. (Pagano lights the other end of the candle).

I have calibrated this candle to time my talk, but I will also use it as a prop/demonstration—as I often do in my classes. In fact, if this were class, for the benefit of my more visual learners, I would probably be discussing blackbody radiation and how the base of the wick is where certain molecular emissions cause the flame to burn blue. But today, I am going to use the candle to also convey my teaching philosophy—which has evolved over many years and is published in its current form on the U.S. Professors of the Year website—but has always been themed around a metaphor from my favorite American philosopher/mathematician/interdisciplinary thinker, Buckminster Fuller (the namesake for Buckminsterfullerene, or "Buckyball," of carbon nanotechnology fame).

I was introduced to Bucky's work by my doctoral adviser with whom I would often visit nearby Walden Pond to ponder science, life, innovative teaching strategies, and of course, the lives and times of Walden's most famous citizens—Emerson and Thoreau. I would contemplate being a fly on the wall for any of the two years, two months and two days that Thoreau inhabited his pond-side hut. Emerson and Thoreau were known to converse with other local transcendentalists of their time, including Margaret Fuller, who coincidentally is Buckminster Fuller's great aunt. Margaret Fuller is credited with saying that, "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it." Which lucky for me, like six degrees of separation, connects my teaching philosophy to this thermodynamic and temporal (as my time is quickly burning up) prop that I have in front of me. 

If only teaching were as easy as lighting one candle off another—with the knowledge flame never really extinguishing as it is perpetually passed from teacher to learner. Instead, we have to be creative in our pedagogical approaches. We have to be flexible in our dissemination of material, versed in different learning modes and sometimes even entertaining to reach the millennial student—and allow them to truly take ownership of their learning process. Or at the rate that classroom technology is advancing, perhaps in the future, there will be an app to replace the burning candle. 

Back to Walden, if I may...Emerson once told Thoreau that nearby Harvard College had most of the "branches" of education—and to that Thoreau responded, "All of the branches and none of the roots" (and my apologies to Harvard-certainly a top institution). I am fortunate to work at a truly unique place, Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID), where deaf and hard-of-hearing students are taught applied knowledge, the roots of their trade, self-advocacy and lifelong learning skills. NTID's President, Dr. Gerry Buckley, who is in attendance today, often talks about the unique "spirit of NTID" and I wonder, Dr. Buckley, was perhaps NTID built to address Thoreau's call for educational roots?  And isn't that part of the "spirit of NTID?" I certainly think so.

I would like to thank the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for this unbelievable honor. I would also like to thank my parents (who were both longtime teachers), my loving wife and Wonderwall, Susan (who is also a very skilled science professor), my colleagues (several of whom are carrying the load for me while I am here), and of course, my students (who make it all worthwhile).

I thank NTID's President (Dr. Gerard Buckley), RIT's Associate Provost (Dr. Christine Licata), NTID's Dean (Dr. Stephen Aldersley), and all other valued guests for being here today and for their support during the years. I also thank other RIT administrators who could not be here, including RIT's President William Destler and Provost Jeremy Haefner. Many people in attendance today, at one time or another, have caringly cautioned me against burning out. And to my lyric-quoting chairperson, Dr. Vince Daniele, who I also thank for being here today, I challenge him to identify the lyric that I use to close my remarks. Friends, I do heed your advice concerning the sustainability of my energy and passion for teaching, but then again, I am not sure that it is in me to approach it in any other way-and in the spirit of giving everything I have to my students...perhaps "it's better to burn out (Pagano blows out candle) than to fade away."*

Thank you.

*credit Neil Young