Steven S. Volk - Acceptance Speech

2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year
Steven S. Volk
Professor of History
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio

The first thing I noticed was her voice-lower than I expected, and gravelly... Janis Joplin with a hint of the hip street. I took in her quasi-slacker look: baseball cap, backwards, black Converse sneakers. Jody, once again, was in trouble, floating somewhere out by Neptune. "Mr. Volk,"—that low semi-growl. "Can I have an extension on my paper?"

We spend years studying history or chemistry; music theory or literary criticism. Years in the archives, lab or the field; perfecting technique, becoming fluent in multiple languages, writing, composing, creating. But, in the end, if we are fortunate enough to get a job, teaching will occupy our time when classes are in session. And damn, we are so lucky. Our students may be 18 or 48, advanced doctoral students or nervous first years. They may be as sharp as the day is long or as unengaged as the brick you use to prop open your porch door. And Jody, of course, is always part of the bargain.

Our students bring their diverse backgrounds, strengths and anxieties into our classrooms, but once there, the only thing that matters is that they are ours for the next 50 or 75 minutes. They are ours: Not the dean's, not the State legislature's, not the governor's. They are ours. Others may talk about teacher "accountability;" I speak of teacher responsibility. Our responsibility is to the students sitting in front of us, and the question we have to answer is: What are we going to do to help students take ownership over their learning so as to better grasp ownership over their future?

"Hey Mr. Volk...I overslept. Did I miss anything?" No, Jody, not a thing. OK, so I revealed the truth behind the Mayan prediction that the world is going to end next year. Maybe you can get the notes from a friend?

Education is at a crossroads in the United States. Teachers are blamed for creating budgetary crises, portrayed as clock-punchers whose only dreams are of their pensions. We are living through the worst crisis to hit our nation since the Great Depression and teachers are faulted for not being able to resolve the vast tsunami of problems that sweep through their students' complex lives and, unsurprisingly, wash up on the shores of their classrooms.

In the United States today, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, citing poor working conditions and low pay as the chief reasons. At the post-secondary level, where a shrinking percentage of faculty members find full-time employment, we are engaged in a debate about the very purpose of education, particularly as the costs of a college degree have escalated, with some arguing that the sole rationale for higher education is to create an employable worker. If there is no direct link between course and job, it shouldn't be taught. And yet research tells us that the current college graduate will have 15 career changes, 11 before she turns 40.

"Hi, Mr. Volk. Hey, could I come to your office hours? I can't figure out what I'm doing here. I dunno—maybe we could talk?"

The genius of post-secondary education in the United States has rested not only in its promise to provide access to a (higher-paying) job, but in its potential to help our graduates live examined lives, adapt what they know to fit future needs, imagine the next generation of jobs not just fill a current job. Yes, I speak from a privileged position of teaching at a highly selective liberal arts college, but the roots of our educational system are deeply grounded in the promises of democracy, not in the amount of tuition a student can pay. Our job as teachers, at every level and in every circumstance, is to cultivate the creativity of all students who come through our doors; to link education to democratic values, to teach our students as if our future depended on it-because it does. Our students are not products, commodities or statistics—they are the future and it is our job—no, it is our privilege—to teach each one as if he or she were our own child; to dream no less for them than we do for our own children. Teachers, more than others, are those who, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, see the hopelessness in the task they are given and yet are determined to make it otherwise.

As teachers, Daniel Liston once observed, we share our love of learning with our students. Indeed, teaching is the act of publicly sharing this love, it is "to try to get our students to see the grace and attraction" that we have found in the world. Our souls are nourished when we see a student entering that world on her own; just as we are anguished when we see a student for whom access to that space is blocked by lack of resources, a crushing load of responsibilities, or the determination of those who spitefully obstruct the doorway, creating as well as celebrating ignorance. Would that they listened to Thomas Jefferson who observed that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

I am more honored than I can express for this recognition. I am not convinced I deserve it, but I accept it gratefully in the name of those who share this larger love which is teaching. There are many people I would like to thank, including CASE and the Carnegie Foundation, but time is short and so I will just say that I have been fortunate beyond measure to teach at a college as special as Oberlin, where my students challenge me every day to remain faithful to its remarkable history and my colleagues serve as a continual inspiration. To my own children, Jonah and Anna, who have shared me over the years with so many students, I am proud beyond words. More than anyone, my thanks and gratitude go to my wife, Dinah, a spectacular teacher of early childhood education. I do not exaggerate when I say that it is she who taught me what it means to focus on student learning. Our dinner conversations are as likely to turn to Vgyotsky or culturally appropriate practice as to who's taking the cat to the vet. Much of this recognition is shared with her.

And Jody (not her real name)? She is now a reporter for the best economics and financial news program on the radio today. When I first heard that familiar, gravelly voice on my NPR station breaking down the financial crisis in Europe so that even I could understand it ... well, I just had to stop and smile.

Thank you very much.