Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dr. Christopher Burkett Receives Teaching Award

To kick off our new departmental blog "History and Politics @ AU" we are reproducing here Dr. Christopher Burkett's speech accepting the Edward and Louaine Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award, one of the greatest honors an Ashland University faculty member can receive. Dr. Burkett will say most beautifully what we in the Department of History and Political Science @ AU aspire to in our teaching. Now here in his own words:

"I’m extremely honored to receive the Edward and Louaine Taylor Excellence in Teaching Award. 
Dr. Christopher Burkett
Sadly, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor are no longer with us. Mrs. Taylor passed away nine years ago, and Mr. Taylor last year at the well-seasoned age of 100.  And so we inherit task of honoring their memories and keeping alive their love of this university, today and in the future.  I did not have the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Taylor, but I did meet Mr. Taylor.  Those who knew Mr. Taylor describe him as a man of amazing character, with a mind forever young and lively, and a heart that was noble and beautiful.   His life was dedicated to excellence in all things.  He expected it of himself and he helped to cultivate it in others.  And Mrs. Taylor, I am told, majored in art in college, a reflection of her love of beauty in all things, especially as it manifested itself in perfection.  I want to say just a few things about these two virtues of Mr. and Mrs. Taylor – their love of excellence and love of beauty, of how, in many ways, the two things are inseparable, and how the pursuit of those things can be the very essence of the pursuit of happiness.
But first let me say that in addition to being honored by the award I am extremely humbled by the fact that we have so many outstanding teachers among our faculty at Ashland University.  This sets us apart from so many other colleges and universities.  This is one of the reasons – the main reason – that I am standing here today.  As an undergraduate student at Ashland College, I knew or took classes from many of the fine faculty here today.  And this is also why I titled my talk “Education and the Pursuit of Happiness,” because it is partly autobiographical.  I tried my hand at college after graduating from high school, and it was awful!  I lasted about five weeks and dropped out.  I found it to be a dreadfully boring, cold and sterile experience.   In my classes there was a lot of professing, but not a lot of teaching, as we understand that term here at Ashland University. 
When I finally came to Ashland College (as it was called then), I decided to major in both History and Fine Art.  Like Mrs. Taylor, I was an art major.  I didn’t fully know it at the time, but my choice of majors, like hers, reflected my desire to know beauty and to see the excellences of which human beings are capable.  In my art classes I learned that painting is the art of capturing beauty on canvas, that there can be beauty in the forms of things, both natural and man-made, especially in the way this line intersects with that, or the way some colors complement others.  I also learned that through the act of painting one can actually enhance the beauty of things that would otherwise go unnoticed to the eye – one can even make things normally considered ugly somehow become beautiful.  In the process of learning these things, I came to realize that there is something beautiful in the fact that art can evoke certain thoughts and feelings.  Ultimately I saw the beauty of the human mind in its ability to both create such works of art and to appreciate them.
The liberal arts education I received at Ashland College enhanced and expanded these pursuits of mine beyond just the Fine Arts.  I began to see beauty in different forms in all of the fields that I studied – in an English course I saw the depth of Shakespeare’s insights on human nature and felt Hemingway’s deep hope that human beings could find meaning and purpose in life – in a philosophy course I saw the heights to which the human mind could excel – I found the convergence of mathematical perfection and deep beauty in my statistics and music theory courses – and in my history courses I saw that human beings are capable of both incredibly terrible and incredibly noble things.  Through the study of these diverse things, I began to realize that beauty and excellence reveal themselves in many different ways.  This gave me a larger perspective on and appreciation of the world in which we live.  In this sense, my liberal arts education lived up to its name – it liberated me from narrow views and unquestioned opinions.  As a result, I can honestly say, I have never been unhappy one single day since.
This is also why after my undergraduate education, I wanted to do nothing but teach.  I want my students to experience that same feeling of awe at finding beauty in places and things we might not expect.  I want them to taste that sense of happiness as beauty reveals itself to them in their pursuit of knowledge regarding what is true, good and just, particularly through the study of great texts and great minds in my classes. 
Although this pursuit can produce happiness, I don’t mean to say that it is easy.  In my classes, I usually tell students on the very first day that the course will be difficult and challenging, and at times even mentally unpleasant, if not downright painful.  But I tell them that what they will acquire in the end – the ability to think deeply and critically – is worth the effort, that it will produce in them a kind of pleasure and happiness that they have not experienced before. 
And so, if there is one simple maxim that describes my approach to teaching, it is this: I believe that every student who wants to learn can learn. As I mentioned, this does not mean that I make my courses easy, or that I teach down to students.  Rather, I expect students to rise intellectually.  Almost without exception, students take up the challenge, and those who take it seriously never let themselves down in the end. In the course of a semester they find that what seemed like a daunting task or an elusive goal is not beyond their grasp.  When students are asked what they learned from my course, nothing pleases me more than when they say things like, “I learned that I can actually understand this stuff,” or, “I learned that I can read difficult texts.”  I truly love it when students realize that they have the potential to engage in the serious pursuit of difficult things, and that they can understand things that they once thought were beyond their reach.   In other words, the first goal is to get students to realize that they are capable of excellence – and that is a beautiful thing.
Now I have heard that I am notorious among students for two things.  First, I am almost always behind schedule in my classes.  Second, I am prone to far-ranging digressions in my classes.  It often happens that after many minutes of chasing a thought over hill and dale, a student will thoughtfully bring us back to the original point of departure, which sometimes involves a chuckle at my expense.  What they don’t know is that I do this, of course, on purpose.  As you might expect from my earlier description of my education, I really don’t believe that there are such things as digressions in the pursuit of knowledge and beauty.  Ideas are not isolated things, but they touch upon each other, and when we see the connections of ideas our minds are somehow lifted toward something higher and better.   My falling behind and my digressions are necessary products of my approach to teaching, which involves engaging students in serious and thought-provoking conversations regarding the texts and ideas we are studying in class.   This mode allows students to personally engage with the topics, with me as the instructor, with their fellow students, and often with the very thinkers whose texts and writings we are reading for class.  And I have to admit that I have a somewhat selfish purpose in this as well.  You see, engaging in conversations with students continuously opens me to new perspectives, new approaches, new ways of describing the ideas that we study in class.  Every semester – really, every day – a student will say something in a way I had not heard before, or will note something in the text that I had not noticed before, or will approach an issue from a different perspective that I had not anticipated.  Like most human beings, I am prone to becoming a creature of habit.  But this conversational mode keeps the material and the ideas fresh for me, and inspires me to improve my courses every time I teach them.  In short, engaging in serious thought and conversation with students allows me to remain a student as well. 
On that note, let me close by saying, especially to students – although you will be very busy in the years to come, don’t let go of that love of learning, of excellence and of beauty that has become habit in you over the last four years.  It can be, and I hope it will be, a source of great happiness through all of your days."

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