Seeing this statement in print is absolutely surreal:
I didn’t set out in this gig to be distinguished anything. There’s only one goal I’ve ever had in doing this stuff that I do at the college level: I want students to be as excited about chemistry and physics as I am, and I want to give them the language to be able to communicate that excitement to others. Anything else is gravy.
And my career isn’t a career that has taken any kind of proper path. I’ve left places repeatedly, for reasons understandable and mystifying, sometimes both at the same time. Somebody check the record books: I am certain I am the only person ever to receive an endowed professorship who has five different full-time faculty jobs on his CV, none of them research-driven, all of them – and let’s be absolutely direct about this – all of them one flavor or another of grunt teacher of chemistry and physics.
People like me don’t get calls from their dean saying “the institution has an endowed professorship, and we want you to hold the title.”
And yet here I am, with a job at this place that calls me “distinguished professor.”
That tells you something about the place.
I’ve said before that I work at a very important place, a place embedded in the Appalachian Mountains, a place that puts its focus on how undergraduates are taught. It’s now twice in a calendar year that this institution has communicated to me, in real and tangible ways, that the things I value are the things that it values – one time when I was promoted to full professor, and now with this endowment of my position.
Places that put the undergraduate student at the center of their mission and support the education of that undergraduate in tangible ways are rare and are becoming rarer. When exploring my options at the point when I applied for this job, the positions that I could find at four-year institutions that didn’t demand some sort of publishable scholarship and that devalued the teaching role of the professor were few and far between. Undergraduate research is important – my colleague in chemistry is an expert at that – but it doesn’t overtake the importance of the work in the classroom.
Choosing somebody with my record and my practice in education sends a message. It’s not enough – it’s not even entirely necessary – to have a robust publication record to be successful at this place. Being successful at this place means doing the work in front of students, day in and day out, and being seriously reflective on the successes and the failures that come with doing that work so that we all can continue to improve at the art and practice of instruction – the very thing that we should be primarily equipped to do at these institutions.
(The press release mentions my work in quizbowl, too! I’m very grateful to be at a place that makes this particular passion of mine not only part of its programming, but part of how I’m valued and something that they can value as well.)
Endowments don’t just fall from the sky. Someone caught the vision to make the substantial sum of money available to feed into the continued success of the institution. In this case, that person was Verna June Meen. Her gift to Tusculum in honor of her husband, who was quite the chemist in his own right, isn’t just responsible for the funding of the position reflected in my title, but the building where I work – the Meen Center for Science and Mathematics. It’s a spectacular facility, the best facility I’ve been able to call a workplace in my career. Frankly, everything about science education at this place is the best kept secret in Tennessee, and I’d like for it to be a little bit less of a secret.
The Meen family will long be remembered at this place for all they’ve done to make a fundamental transformation of science education possible. I taught in that great legacy science building, Tredway Hall, at the start of my time at Tusculum – but there’s only so much modern science that a building constructed in 1928 can support. The Meen funding that made the building possible also supports this endowment and, in turn, will support the maintenance of laboratory equipment in the building and further undergraduate research in chemistry that will go forward. The funding is not just for me; the foresight of how the money is being apportioned means it is for all of us, and that is something that satisfies me deeply.
Between the Meen funding and the USDA and Appalachian Regional Commission support in addition to other private funding that supplemented the costs of construction and the outfitting of the building with lab equipment, we’re confident we can be on the cutting edge of science education – education that isn’t merely rigorous and effective, but accessible, meeting the students of this region at the point of their need.
Accepting this title is a spectacular honor – but it’s also a profound responsibility. I have a little bit more of a bully pulpit than I had before, and I feel a very real obligation to communicate anew the importance of constructing our institutions in ways that allow everybody who comes across our path – particularly those who come across our path wanting to study the sciences – the opportunity to succeed, to realize their dreams, and surpass them.
For six and a half years I have been supported in ways large and small by this campus community, by people who have since moved on, by people who have come onto campus, and by people who have stayed. That support has been doubled and redoubled over the course of this brutally difficult year, where professional successes have been wedded with the worst heartache.
The realization strikes me that there are people who are working overtime to make sure that my “Real Professional Development Goal” of April 2016 comes to fruition.
I’m grateful, so grateful to the people who have made Tusculum University my home.
(Thanks to April Lane for the photo.)