Michael Wesch - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Michael Wesch
Assistant professor of Cultural Anthropology
Kansas State University

Each semester, I teach “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” to about 400 students in a large lecture theatre. Most of the students do not even know what anthropology is when they enroll. They are just there to fulfill a requirement.

Thirteen years ago, I was one of them, sitting in the exact same room. I didn't know what anthropology was either. I looked it up just before I rushed off to class that first day. There I discovered one of the greats, Dr. Martin Ottenheimer. He spoke softly and smoothly as if unaware of the fact that he was lobbing intellectual fire-bombs into the audience and blowing minds. What seemed like a bunch of factoids to be memorized for an exam carried much deeper and more profound messages – that the world is not as it seems, that we know the world only through our own cultural biases, that even the little things matter, that taken together all the little things we do make the world what it is, and that if we are willing to challenge ourselves, truly understand others with empathy, and shed the comfort of our familiar but sometimes blinding, binding, and taken-for-granted assumptions, we can make the world a better place.

Dr. Ottenheimer did not offer any answers. He did not even help me discover my own answers. Instead, he helped me find questions I had never asked before. The answers to such questions were just more questions. And so he launched me on a lifelong quest, question after question after question.

The next semester, I became a TA for the class—this time taught by the equally mesmerizing and inspiring Dr. Harald Prins. I led a recitation of 20 students every Friday. On the first day, I had to stand on a chair to reach up for a retractable screen. As I stepped down, my shorts caught on the back of the chair, ripping them all the way up the side and exposing my underwear. I don't remember anything else specific about class that day—just that I loved it. The walk home is etched in my memory as a peak experience. Any embarrassment about my torn shorts flapping in the wind was overshadowed by an overwhelming feeling of lightness in my step and the intensity of the excitement I felt rushing through my entire being.

Seven years later, as luck would have it, I was returning from my graduate school fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, just as Dr. Ottenheimer was retiring, and I was hired to replace him. So there I was, back in that same room again, now on the other side of the podium.

Unfortunately, the questions I seemed to be inspiring were a bit more mundane than those inspired in me by Dr. Ottenheimer. “How many points is this worth?” “How long does this need to be?” “What do we need to know for this test?” Frustrated with these questions, I threw out the syllabus and asked my students to join me on a quest to answer real questions that perplexed me as much as them, and that had the enduring quality of relevance to all humanity – not “What do we need to know for this (multiple-choice) test?” but “What do we need to know for this test of our lives?” Since then, I have found myself in the wonderful but sometimes awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing at any given moment, of walking with my students rather than talking at them, and blissfully learning all along the way.

I wish the thousands of students who have learned with me over these years could stand with me today. This award belongs as much or more to them as it does to me. And I think they would all stand with me in thanking my department colleagues and the administration of Kansas State University for their enduring support. I do not know of any other university that would have tolerated (let alone funded) many of the things that have occurred in our classroom.

I owe a special thanks to my parents, who seem to have boundless love not only for me but for everybody they meet. They raised me in a small Nebraska town where simple trips to the grocery store were major social events. They would stop, talk, and more than anything, listen to just about everybody they saw. Such examples have greatly shaped the ways I engage with my students as well as my optimism for the world.

And most importantly, I want to thank my wife Sarah. We met as TAs for Dr. Harald Prins, and we have been together ever since, a long and wonderful journey. Her wisdom and support have saved me numerous times along the way. Five years ago, as I anxiously anticipated stepping in front of those 400 students for the first time, she calmed my anxieties with a few simple words that have stayed with me ever since and become the core of my practice, “Love your students and they will love you back.”

To Sarah, for deepening my understanding of love—and my capacity for loving.

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