In my conversations with alumni and supporters of Washington State University, the subject often turns to some teacher who opened their minds and set their lives on a new course. I am certainly no exception to that. I remember Professor Richard Wirthlin, who opened my mind to questions I would never have asked, and first introduced me to the notion of graduate school. Later, I was mentored and inspired by Clark Kerr, whose passion for excellence in higher education was infectious.
Some believe that this ability to teach and inspire is simply a gift that you either have or do not have. Certainly, it comes easier for some than others, but as one who has spent a lifetime in universities, I can tell you that good teaching, like any good art, is 90 percent perspiration. That work is easier if you have help. While I was a young professor here, I found that I had much to learn from master teachers on our faculty who were eager to help me. From Ralph Thayer I learned how to conduct a seminar. I watched and learned from outstanding faculty members like Howard Payne, Rom Markin, Paul Castleberry, Wallace Petersen, Don Bushaw, and others. The best faculty have always set the standard that the rest of us tried to reach.
The Washington State University strategic plan states that we will provide the best learning experience for undergraduate students in a research university. We adopted this goal because we know that to prepare our students to be part of what one author calls “the creative class”-his term for the intellectual and creative segment of our population on whom we increasingly depend for a competitive edge-we must give them opportunities to work with world-class researchers, scholars, and performers.
We strive to keep this goal foremost as we design and redesign the spaces and places that make up our campus learning environments. It is a driving factor in new program development, advising, and faculty and staff recruitment. We strive to foster an environment free of prejudice and open to new ideas and people.
With all of this, the learning process we seek to create still depends more on good teachers than any other factor. Most of us know from personal experience how much difference excellent teaching and mentoring makes. In reading a biography of Edward R. Murrow recently, I was deeply impressed by the account of his relationship with his mentor, Ida Lou Anderson, when he was in college here. Ms. Anderson had been deformed by polio, but this physical challenge did not dampen her spirit. Her teaching methods were unusual, and she used no notes and gave no examinations. Murrow was clearly her prize student, but an entire generation of students responded to her dedicated teaching. Murrow’s biographer writes, “Under her influence he became a voracious reader, soaking up what he could, like a sponge, in every possible area, the beginnings of a lifelong curiosity about the world.” (A. M. Sperber, Murrow, His Life and Times, Freundlich Books, 1986, p. 26).
In recognition of the importance of good teaching, and in an effort to provide a more effective way to spread our best practices, we have recently created the “President’s Teaching Academy.” The academy members were selected from many nominees across the University for their reputation as inspirational, creative teachers. At a dinner honoring the first class appointed to the academy, I sought their opinion as to why they were selected for this recognition and responsibility. In their comments, I heard dozens of ideas that would have made me a more effective teacher and, as they talked about their interaction with students, I was reminded of this statement that I once read in a teaching manual: “Our job is not to straighten people out, but to lift them up.”
The academy includes some of our best teachers, and we are grateful that they have accepted the responsibility to help us realize our goal of providing the best undergraduate education. They are working to provide processes that will reach all faculty and encourage them to help each other in teaching, as they do in research and scholarship. In our earlier meeting I noted that, even as master teachers, members of the academy were learning from each other about how to be even more effective.
Vice Provost Doug Baker is taking the lead in providing the support for the academy and many other teaching and learning initiatives that involve hundreds of our staff and faculty through our new Office of Undergraduate Education. We will provide many opportunities for interchange and dialogue. The academy is working to raise our standards, provide opportunities to improve teaching, and establish measures of performance. I am lifted up by their efforts.