Steven Volk - Passion for Teaching Statement

Early January. Boston, in the midst of a nasty, cold winter. First panel of the morning at the American Historical Association. I am scheduled to speak on what I call "bridge" mentoring: how to help junior colleagues learn to mentor undergraduates while simultaneously seeking out mentoring advice from their new senior colleagues. However, shortly before it is my turn to speak, I throw away my carefully prepared notes and decide instead to address two incidents that had happened to me earlier that morning.

The first, as unexpected as it was pleasant, occurred when a former student, now a tenured professor of Latin American history, took his seat in the audience. Justin and I have shared a close mentoring relationship since he enlivened my Latin American history survey course 20 years ago. The second came when I foolishly opened an email from my college's Academic Standing Committee while waiting for the panel to begin. One of my first-year advisees had been placed on academic suspension after failing to pass a sufficient number of hours.

My talk, I decided, would now focus on how our lives as teachers and mentors often veer between success and failure, and how we desperately try to learn from the successes to prevent the failures. I told the audience that I understood I was no more responsible for the failure of the latter than the success of the former. But even as I spoke, my words sounded a half-note off. What was my responsibility? Could I have done more to encourage my first year to take greater ownership over his own learning, to see himself in a previously unimagined future?

I think about these questions as I move considerably closer to the end of my career then the start. I reflect increasingly on how to better use the time I spend with my students. The minutes that seemed like marathons when I began teaching now blaze by Usain Bolt-like, leaving me to question in how many of those minutes did we do the work we needed to do?

I turned to technology for an answer. An early technology adopter in the classroom, I used it unimaginatively. I have since discovered how to use technology to shift space and time, to stretch the potentials of student learning and to prod students to own their learning. Space shifting is easy: I Skype in colleagues from around the country or the world, giving my classes a chance to question experts in Venezuela or discuss an article with its author who sits in her Berkeley office. Time shifts demand considerably more effort.

A few years ago, in what I thought were my very active lectures, some students were still disengaged. Concerned that I was using class time to deliver (rather than examine) course content, but also unwilling to surrender my narrative, I opted to time shift. I began to produce video lectures which students viewed on the web before class sessions. I retained my historical narrative on the video while freeing class time for deeper engagement with critical concepts and allowing student learning to determine the shape of each class. From my vantage point, there is a palpable feeling among the students that if you check your email or stare out the window, not only will you miss something, but you will let everyone down.

As director of Oberlin's Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence for the past four years, I have had the opportunity to use insights from my own practice and from the teaching and learning community to sponsor campus-wide learning initiatives as well as launch a new pedagogical approach to help students deal with difference.

It is immensely gratifying to see my students who did so well at Oberlin now using their creativity, intelligence and energy to pay it forward as they work to make this country and the world a better place for all. But, honestly, it is magic when I find out that the ones I couldn't reach, the subjects of those troubling mid-winter emails, found someone else to help them and are now doing just fine.