Thursday, August 19, 2010

To the new faculty

Tonight I am posting the approximate text of some remarks I made tongiht at the closing dinner of  the Faculty Summer Institute, a teaching orientation of sorts for our new faculty.  Sorry if this is cheating, but writing two pieces in one day is too much for my feeble little mind!

I know that I am supposed to tell you all about the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.  But I also know that it is Thursday night.  You have just finished three long days of the Summer Institute.  I served you wine, beer and a big dinner.  As I speak, you are enjoying a luscious warm chocolate dessert.    I suspect your interest level in the details of  SE&T is fairly low at this moment.   So, I’ll give you a 30 second synopsis. We, that is the 75 or so faculty members and 8 laboratory technicians that comprise SE&T, offer coursework leading to undergraduate degrees in biology, chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, math, mechanical engineering and physics.  We put a strong emphasis on research and design, especially when it involves undergraduates. The slide show that has been playing all through the reception and dinner presents some basic information about the college and highlights the types of student engagement and active learning that occur in SE&T.   I am not going to belabor these points.

However, you aren’t off the hook completely.  There is really no such thing as a free dinner and you are still stuck listening to me for a few minutes!

I was in your shoes 12 years ago when I attended the 1998 Faculty Summer Institute as a first year faculty member.  I found it, as I hope you did, to be extremely valuable--partly to assist me in thinking about my classes, but also as an opportunity to meet people from all over campus and begin to get acclimated to this institution. Hopefully, you have found all the important places, like Starbucks and Quiznos, and have had a chance to appreciate the beautiful campus we all enjoy.

As I was thinking about what I’d say to you tonight, I thought back to my own experience as a first year faculty member.  To appreciate this story, you need to know a little more about my background.  I came here directly from a 15 year stint as a research chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.   Pretty much everyone I worked with either had a Ph.D. in chemistry or was getting one, an environment not especially different from graduate school.  That means that for nearly 20 years prior to teaching my first class at SVSU, my professional life had been spent with no one but practicing research scientists. 

The chemistry department tried to give me an ‘easy’ first year load.  Basically, I taught two sections of the general education chemistry course for non-majors  and a few freshman laboratories.  I was very eager to shape and mold young minds and I carefully and enthusiastically prepared courses meant to challenge and excite my students.  It took about 5 minutes on the first day of classes to realize that I may have ever-so-slightly overestimated the students’ prior knowledge of and enthusiasm for chemistry.  ”Ever-so-slightly” as in "completely-and-totally.”   I was grateful for the long Labor Day weekend; it gave me some time to significantly revise my course to better meet the students’ needs.   We all have advanced degrees, and it is very easy to forget that our students are at a very different stage of their academic development.  I suspect you were all good students and while we have plenty of very good students, we also have those who will struggle. We may relate best to the former, but we need to teach all of them.    My advice to you is to remember that not all students are destined to be professors and that people are not born knowing the fundamentals of our disciplines. Apparently that is especially true in chemistry!

I am very proud of the work we do in SE&T and at SVSU in general.  We have a very good faculty, very strong programs, and an excellent tradition of student engagement.  We have high expectations of ourselves.  We have high expectations of our students and quite honestly, we have high expectations of you. 

The students are starting to arrive on campus and very soon our classrooms will be filled to capacity.  We have a chance, a precious chance, to inform, to instruct, to influence, to inspire and to improve the lives of our students.    Some of those students are ready and waiting to achieve their educational goals and some are still unsure of who they are, what they want, and even why they are here.  Yes, some students will drive you crazy and some may seem disengaged.  But those might be the students you influence the most.  Maybe it will be that kid in the third row who seems really bored all the time who will come back at the end of the semester, or at commencement, or five or even ten years later, to tell you how you helped her to do something that she never thought possible  and how that changed her life.   Maybe the student who pesters you endlessly in office hours will surprise you someday with a touching expression of his gratitude for your patience.  Maybe, at some point in the future, you, like me tonight,  will experience the pride of welcoming a former student back to SVSU as a new colleague.

SVSU is still young, at least by comparison to most universities.  We are just approaching our 50th birthday.  We enjoy the stories of the pioneers that built this place but the campus culture and our history are still being formed.  This institution is big enough that we have resources to do innovative things, but small enough that every single one of us has the opportunity to significantly shape the future of the university.  I see my job as dean of SE&T is to create an environment where good ideas can come to fruition and  we can all make our college even better than it already is.

Since coming to SVSU, I have never been bored.  I have never wondered if my work is important.  How many people can say that about their jobs?  So, I encourage you to be important and help shape the next generation of students and the future of this institution, and if you do somehow get bored, give me a call--  I’ve got lots of ideas!  But honestly, I really don't expect to hear from you.

Thank you for joining us this evening, welcome to the university community and I wish you every success.

Today I am grateful that my whole family is together at home.  It happens too rarely these days, but always brings me joy!

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