On Accepting Temple's Great Teacher Award
Professor of English
and American Studies
(Picture from Ryan S. Brandenberg/ Temple University)
Last week the Temple Times published profiles of this year’s award winners, who all gave eloquent remarks on April 22 at this year’s faculty awards convocation. But Miles Orvell’s acceptance speech spoke to some especially important issues in teaching and the academic life that touch so many of us—so with his permission, we reprint it here —The Editor
I am deeply touched and deeply honored by this award and by your kind words, Dean Soufas, and I want to thank my wonderful colleagues in English and in American Studies – and especially my students, whose motivation is so inspiring.
I’ve been walking through the Founder’s Garden, not far from where we are today, for many years, seeing the Great Teacher names carved in stone; and I’ve always regarded it as one of Temple’s great traditions—to thus honor teaching.
And of course seeing one’s name in stone – seeing it while still alive – is a special treat. (I’m reminded also of Mark Twain’s observation when he was awarded an honorary degree at Oxford and was surrounded by academic regalia similar to what’s on the stage now: “I was particularly anxious to see this pageant,” he said, “so that I could get ideas for my funeral procession, which I am planning on a large scale.”)
I’m not planning mine yet, so don’t worry – but there is enough talk of the perilous state of our profession to make us all worry about the future of higher education. Louis Menand asked recently, in a book on education, why it took so long to train Ph.Ds in the humanities – sometimes as long as nine, ten years or more – when you could become a lawyer in three years, a doctor in four. He thought the training ought to be encompassed in a much shorter period. The answer is partly, of course, an economic one and involves the teaching responsibilities of graduate students; but it’s also a philosophical one, and involves the peculiar nature of the humanities.
Why does it take ten years in the humanities? I’d say it’s more like twenty before you might begin to feel relaxed “professing.” When I first started teaching, like most new instructors, doctorate in hand, I felt the thrill of authority – and also the certain feeling that I would be exposed as a fraud in my next class. Humanities Ph.D.’s are uniquely qualified to experience this “impostor syndrome.”
All of which says something about the nature of our enterprise as teachers: that we never can know enough, that we feel constantly the expansion of our horizons, the reshaping of our fields, the complexity of the problems we are trying to solve.
But it’s not just a matter of how much we know, for teaching and learning are collaborative processes, and every day I walk into the classroom or talk with a student, I am learning as much as I am instructing, and I daily thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to find work that I love doing.
It really is impossible to say anything now about teaching without also saying how imperiled our profession is by the economics of education. This university has been relatively fortunate in being able to continue to hire new professors on the tenure track in recent years, to replenish the ranks with new ideas and fresh energy. But not all colleges and universities have been so lucky, and the prospects for hiring in the humanities especially have been notoriously dim for years.
In a world driven politically (and by the media) to over-simplification, obfuscation, and distortion, we must be able to have classrooms where complexity – and precision – can be honored. Our understanding of society, of the arts, and of history – all these things are essentials in our civilization.
By honoring teaching, this award helps remind us all why universities exist, and why education must be our society’s highest priority.
Thank you again for this wonderful award.