The Colgate Scene
March 2008

Why I teach

Jerome Balmuth
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."
— Henry Brooks Adams,
The Education of Henry Adams

Teachers inspire. Challenge. Cajole. Confound. Illuminate. They open doors to new worlds, new knowledge, and new ways of thinking.

Teaching has always been at the heart of Colgate, so we asked several professors why they do it. Their answers were as varied — and compelling — as the subjects they teach.

Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of Philosophy and Religion

Joined Colgate in 1954

Teaching this semester:
CORE 151 Western Traditions
PHIL 230 Aesthetics & Philosophy of Art

When a philosopher responds to the question "why," one can predict that the reply will be multileveled: separating the obvious from the less so in seeking the more exact and distinguishing explanation; all in answer to the apparently simple inquiry requesting the springs of a teacher's motivation. Also, a caution! There is unlikely to be, for any one person queried about her or his life's work, a single or simple spring; so that any such response may misrepresent the complex texture of a proper answer.

I entered into graduate work in philosophy because I found myself deeply ignorant, yet preoccupied with the ultimate questions that philosophy alone, as a discipline, persistently worried; concurrent with this was the exquisitely vain, if not foolhardy, ambition to achieve a position to respond intelligently — authoritatively — to these questions. All this with little prudential awareness that the practice of philosophy, unlike the case for other listed studies, was solely through continued thinking and teaching. Indeed, I went on to learn that this was certainly one of the principal reasons for continuing teaching: sustained learning; the recognition that teaching is the assured practice of (philosophical) thinking as a determined form of doing what is worthwhile, exciting, and ultimately important.

He taught you English and pardoned your French. She knew when — and when not — to give a lecture. He gave you the confidence to meet his high expectations.

Who was your most influential professor, and why?

Post your thoughts, and read what others have to say, at (Please log in before attempting to view discussion board topics.)

Another way of putting the point is that while other disciplines focus on particular areas of study — amassing and informing practical and theoretical information (knowledge) from empirical observations and experimental research, whether of history of species, nations, cultures, religions, literature as well as of theories and ideas (generally the businesses of the social sciences as well as certain of the humanities) or from the investigation into the worlds of micro-macro causality (the physical sciences) — philosophy is unique in that there is no one guarded province. Or better, it recognizes for itself no such limits (nor the implied responsibility, as the sciences, to produce practical change). Rather, I discovered that, in a distinct fashion, guided by reason and logic, philosophy seeks to understand how to relate it all to becoming a genuinely serious human being in a seductively complex world: probing more deeply in trying to make pure and practical sense of existence by seeking to relate it all; ultimately reflecting one of the most ambitious intellectual and spiritual strivings of being human.

This is to say that teaching is a form of living through learning: an ongoing process of nurturing mutual understanding as well as self-understanding, stocking the rich sustenance for living and for savoring life itself. Thus, it should be clear that such a purpose is inevitably and irreducibly social: teaching and learning is not a form of solipsistic confinement. It cannot be for, or by, oneself that one engages in learning and teaching; nor by oneself that one learns to learn, and to distinguish what is worth learning in research and discussion. Teaching takes a community of learning and learners, mutually aspiring searchers for the significant and the worthwhile.

In fact, the teacher is a determined citizen of the intellectual world, ever seeking to naturalize new citizens. In effect, the teacher functions as intellectual proselytizer — working impartially to generate in the student the same eagerness and excitement for reflection, understanding, and the truth that motivates the instructor's own dedication. To realize this purpose more fully, the teacher must devote attention to the individual student: seeking to awaken his and her latent abilities; building on the student's innate curiosity and imagination and natural eagerness for understanding and recognition; all the while sharing in the excitement of intellectual exploration and the promise of discovery.

No teacher can do more than be an intellectual catalyst: the student — each student — must respond and learn for him and herself; students must do their own learning as they must do their own living. The classroom functions properly when it is less a demonstration of the teacher's knowledge than the occasion for provoking the student's learning. It should work as Socrates's gadfly: goading the student's intellectual imagination, and finally affecting the student's reflective consciousness.

The Instructor employs strategies; but always with the core conviction that there are deep and wonderful things to be thought about and learned, and life-enhancing skills to be mastered; that it is a great privilege and responsibility to be in the position to engage the developing human mind; and that the prize is ultimately to enrich the whole human community, as it does each individual's life.

Plato devised the conceit that a world without the teacher is a confined and cavernous world of shadowy illusion, grounded helplessly in ignorance and mutual misunderstanding. It is the teacher's vocation to show a way out; if possible to lead to a path of more complete clarity and intellectual liberation, free of defensiveness and prejudice. This is a worthy, if likely impossible, ideal; but we, as teachers, could do no better than to strive, in our teachings, to realize that ideal.

April Sweeney
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Assistant Professor of English in University Theater

Joined Colgate in 2006

Teaching this semester:
ENGL 355 Advanced Acting
ENGL 359 Performance II: Voice and Stage Presence for Actors

I teach because it is a way for me to do the thing I love: make theater. It is a way for me to be who I am all the time. If this sounds silly, you should know it is a luxury. That is not to say that in my professional life the work I do is exactly the same as in the classroom. It could never be, for many reasons; however, the foundations are the same. For me, in both the rehearsal room and the classroom, at the core lie INQUIRY and ENCOUNTER. On good days, both places are laboratories for my discipline.

I never dreamed I would be teaching. I did my MFA out of sheer wanton desire to become a better actor. Teaching came upon me suddenly and without my asking. I found myself in the middle of the Bolivian jungle, part of a collective of artists making projects in collaboration with communities throughout Argentina and Bolivia. Having awoken at 6:30 a.m. after my usual stirring at 4:30 a.m. to a chorus of 100 roosters, I popped out of my tent, put on my rubber boots, and went to clean the floor, the seven pieces of beautiful marley we had been lugging around and performing our dance theater play on, underneath our huge, blue circus tent, from Buenos Aires to Cochabamba.

It was my job to take care of the floor, so every morning began with a bucket full of water and Clorox as I cleaned up the duck droppings from the night before. The ducks liked to sneak into the tent, and the floor was cool and shiny. At 7:30 a.m. we began our daily theater training, and on this particular morning it just sort of hit me. I was lying down next to Garde96a; she had been lying down next to me all week. We were looking at each other; she had been struggling for days with what we were working on. We began to work together, move together, breathe together, never saying a word. Two people with nothing in common but the desire to communicate. After the hour and a half of training, we understood something about each other, and she smiled.

It hit me then: the feeling of what I had been doing for the last seven months. I knew that when I returned to the States I wanted to continue teaching. Acting and teaching, at their core, are about how you create an encounter with another person. And whether that encounter is at the Public Theater in New York City, or Ryan 212 at Colgate, or in Bolivia, the work, for me, is all interconnected and satisfying.

Before returning to Hamilton after the winter break, after six long weeks of rehearsing and performing in New York, I found myself longing a little for Colgate. At first I was sure it was just a desire to sleep in my own bed. But on the bus back, I realized it was something more. I was excited to see what the semester would bring.

Reasons why I teach include the entirety of one of my classes understanding and falling in love with José Rivera's References to Salvador Dal92 Make Me Hot; a hockey player who makes a huge shipping crate filled with a child's imagination; and a student who would stop by my office every other week and say in increments:

"This is fun."

"Wow. This is really, really hard but really cool."

"I really like this."

"I think I would like to make a play."

"I think I would really like to be in a play."

"I think I might want to major in theater."

And that just makes me smile.

Fernando Plata
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Professor of Spanish

Joined Colgate in 1994

Teaching this semester:
SPAN 361 Advanced Composition and Stylistics
SPAN 462 Cervantes' Don Quijote

When I was a teenager, I used to offer informal, free tutoring to my peers on subjects ranging from integral calculus and trigonometry to Latin and Classical Greek — all of which were mandatory in Spain's high schools of the 1980s. That way, I was able to help my friends, and also got the added bonus of spending countless hours with my high school sweetheart. Later, in college, private tutoring afforded me the cash needed for travel and exploration in a country that, at 25 percent unemployment, would otherwise have offered nothing but a summer of street roaming and shared cigarettes with other neighborhood youths. The opportunities gained, albeit compelling, were not all I came out with from the experience of tutoring.

What I realized was that I love teaching, and for reasons that are very simple. Teaching both requires and provides a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. A superficial comprehension of complicated phenomena (the cosine of an angle, or the Greek accusative) is usually enough to get a passing grade in an exam and in life. To really explain these phenomena, though, to actually transfer one's analytical and synthetic processes to another brain, requires a much deeper level of understanding. It was this that initially attracted me to teaching.

Teaching is also a labor of love. It requires dedication and patience, and these are tools of love. Teaching makes one better as it improves the other. After college, I chose university teaching as a profession, and I was fortunate to get Colgate as my first assignment after six years at the University of Michigan, where I earned my PhD. Colgate is a perfect place for someone who likes teaching: bright and disciplined students, small classes, and an intimate faculty-student setting.

Teaching is actualizing the potential in the brain, and so as a teacher I seek to provide students with the analytical and synthetic skills required for critical thinking, which will inform them as readers, citizens, and persons. And I do that from the oft-besieged, admittedly narrow confines of my discipline, the classical literature of Spain.

The narratives, poetry, and drama of the economic, political, and cultural powerhouse that Spain was in the 16th and 17th centuries are but a pretext to hone the skills of my students, to encourage them to be critical and alert readers, and to make them better persons through the sheer pleasure and aimless wanderings of, say, a Spanish errant knight.

Nancy Pruitt
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Professor of Biology

Joined Colgate in 1983

Teaching this semester:
BIOL 212 Molecules, Cells, and Genes BIOL 381 Human Physiology
CORE 110 Discovering Biology

At every level of the curriculum, teaching has both its joys and its challenges. First-year students, with their enthusiasm for learning, still think their professors have all the answers (which is both a joy and a challenge). This group is still learning their way around not just the campus, but also their own intellectual territory.

Juniors, on the other hand, know their way around. With their fingers squarely on the pulse of campus life — indeed they are the pulse of campus life — juniors are the ones to ask if you want to know what's on the collective student mind, what they think about issues both on campus and off. By the time students reach the junior year, they are balancing a complicated to-do list of administrative responsibilities with some of the most challenging courses in their majors. Juniors are the resident advisers in their dorms, officers of their Greek-letter organizations, captains of their teams, and volunteers in the community. And with all of this, the juniors I know still manage to participate fully in the richness of the academic enterprise that is Colgate.

Seniors, with one foot on campus and one in the future, are beginning to get a sense of themselves as adults. And as a professor, I am beginning to get a sense of them as younger colleagues. They bring experience not only from the courses they have taken, but also from their summer jobs and internships, off-campus study groups, and the various leadership roles they have assumed on campus. Those perspectives add richness and texture to classroom discussions, and their insights keep me on my toes — or sometimes catch me off guard. There are times when I learn as much from our seniors as they learn from me.

But if you ask me why I teach, I would have to say it is because of the sophomores. Something magical happens in the sophomore year. At the beginning of the year, sophomores still want to know exactly what to memorize in order to do well on the next exam. Which exact pages of the textbook will we be tested on? What problems, cribbed from last year's notes, will be emphasized this year? Then, about midway through the semester, all of that slowly starts to change. A hand goes up in class, and a student asks a question that connects the idea we are discussing with a problem she has been considering on her own. Another student criticizes the methods of a classic study we are reviewing. Another solves a problem in a novel way by bringing in ideas from a different class. The linear thinkers who walked into the sophomore classroom at the beginning are now formulating creative and original ideas of their own that call on all of their resources and experiences.

Watching that sophomore transformation is enough to keep me coming back to the classroom.

Kermit E. Campbell
[Photo by Luke Connolly '09]

Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric

Joined Colgate in 2002

Teaching this semester:
WRIT 203 Argumentation
WRIT 346 Language, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States
ALST 477/490 Africana and Latin American Studies Senior Seminar

Why do I teach? Put simply, I teach because of who I am. By way of a succinct narrative, let me explain. Kind of on a whim, after completing my BA in English and contemplating my next move, I applied to teach English in China. The prospect of traveling abroad appealed to me more than what I would have to do to earn my keep there. China was desperate for English teachers then — part of Communist Party Chair Deng Xiaoping's post-cultural revolution modernization plan — so without teaching experience or training I was hired, and I boarded a plane bound for Guangzhou, Guangdong (Canton).

Although many of the students at the South China Institute of Technology were content to listen to any native English speaker talk about almost anything, at least one class I taught resembled the kind of teaching I was accustomed to at the University of Texas. We read several works of nonfiction by writers like Emerson, all aimed to reveal the essence of American culture to the foreign student.

In time, the students put up a decent fight whenever we debated the merits of communism over democracy, yet I think that I made a fairly cogent case for the rights of citizens in a democracy, rights and liberties that seemed to me absent in communist China. Never before did I feel compelled to advocate for my country, but I did so as any responsible citizen might. But at times I wondered, how could I — a black man having come of age during the many years of intense struggle for civil rights — argue so uncritically about American democracy or America itself?

Even in a foreign land, I felt myself thrust in the middle of Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal," ever doubtful but determined to prove that I was just as American as any white American in China. I suspect that the Chinese market vendors and rural people had their doubts. Because I spoke English clearly and deliberately, my students, on the other hand, were pretty sold on my American-ness. But was I? I guess you could say that I taught then to keep from being an invisible man. A mite self indulgent? Perhaps, but teaching has to be a selfish act before it can be a truly selfless one. Teaching certainly involves the desire that students learn, that they acquire certain critical and creative abilities. I have taught enough spoken English and expository writing classes in the past 20 years to appreciate why many faculty members are such dedicated teachers.

But I believe that teaching is more than what students learn or the skills they acquire. I teach because teaching is an expression of the soul, and the expression of the soul is what makes us human. If students can see in my soul the passion for truth, for free thinking, and for being, as the ancients would say, a citizen of the world, then I'm satisfied. I'm satisfied because maybe then something transformative will happen in the classroom. Maybe their souls, and mine, will be changed, become more enlightened, more judicious, more reflective, more humane.

This may not be what students expect from a course or from education generally. But if we — teachers and students — are not fundamentally changed, bettered by the educational process we have invested in, then of what value is it? I believe the value is in our humanity, in seeing that none of us are invisible men.

Peter Scull
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Assistant Professor of Geography

Joined Colgate in 2002

Teaching this semester:
CORE 103 Remote Sensing of the Environment
GEOG 102 Introduction to Environmental Geography
GEOG 306 Biogeography

I thought a lot about the request to write this piece before I agreed to do so, and I asked myself the question many times while walking to and from campus. Did I have a good answer? I did, right? I mean, I must. I tell people all the time that I love my job, and it's a job that I find incredibly challenging and occasionally frustrating, that exacts a huge toll from me daily, so it's not the kind of thing I like because it's easy or always fun. It's not. It's hard work, and no matter how well I do it, I always think I could have done better. And yet I love it.

In fact, pondering the question caused something like a mild form of anxiety, but unlike more traditional forms of anxiety, I found the opportunity to reflect somehow intriguing. I knew there was a good answer; I just didn't know what it was. People who know me from years back are rarely surprised to learn that I teach. Surely, that must mean that I'm well cut out to do so. But why?

I'm occasionally told that I am very patient. I suppose that's true, but while things like patience increase my effectiveness as a teacher, they don't actually explain why I teach in the first place. This was becoming more difficult with each trip back and forth on Oak Drive. Then I figured it out.

The actual moment occurred when I entered the southwestern entrance to the new Ho Science Center, where my fabulous new office is located. I noticed a quotation engraved on the wall near the door: "Why are things as they are and not otherwise? (Johannes Kepler, 1571—1630)"

That question goes a long way toward answering the question of why I teach. I believe that understanding the nature of things adds significant value to life, and I teach, in part, to convince students of this. It's easy to appreciate the readily observable beauty of natural phenomena — for example, mackerel skies — but it's an entirely different thing to understand fully the processes that produce them. For me, understanding things adds to their beauty.

In teaching geography, I spend a lot of my time explaining "What's where and why." In my context, the "what" is physical geographic phenomena, such as trees or monsoons. For example, in my Introduction to Environmental Geography course I ask students to make observations about the physical environment here in central New York. We then discuss their observations and frequently consider how and why the environment here differs from the environment of their home state or country.

A student once asked me, "You have so many leaves on your trees here. Where I'm from in Colorado the trees all have needles. What's up with that?" I said, "Let me tell you a story," and off we went. Sometimes it's easy, like what causes the wind to shift direction with the passing of a front, while other times we might struggle to understand something like why it seems to snow almost daily throughout the early winter here in central New York. I am reminded of why I teach when I hear students say, "Oh, that's why! Cool." Or when I hear through the grapevine that my students are passing on what they have learned. The way I see it, they're adding beauty to the world around them. What could be better than that?

Jane Pinchin
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English

Chair, Department of English

Joined Colgate in 1969

Teaching this semester:
ENGL 363: Contemporary Fiction

Act One
We all have stories repetitively told, our own canon. One of mine begins with a fellowship designed to support the graduate work of those bound for college teaching. I'd won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in my senior year of college. And felt, well, guilty. The light bulb had not gone off. I didn't know what I wanted to do and was taking money on false pretenses.

The rest, as they say, is history, or my history. And it has the rather unusual fact of being played out, for the most part, in one place, for I was first hired at Colgate when I was 22 (although I returned to Columbia the next year to finish my PhD). I began teaching that fall to an all-male student body as one of two women faculty. For my first class ever, I drove up the hill to campus, stalled my new/used Plymouth Voyager — Manhattan born and bred, I'd just learned to drive — and, abandoning it, ran into a classroom with a group of freshmen taking Core 17. A hand rose with a question clearly designed to see if I would fold (linking, as I recall, Aristotelian logic and sexuality). Cheeky but cheerful, it somehow relaxed me completely. The Woodrow Wilson foundation got it right. It was the work I wanted.

Act Two
If asked "why I teach" even three years ago, I would have said, well, for the most part, I don't, for I'd spent the last 15 years in academic administration. It grew slowly but perhaps logically from classroom teaching and was to encompass jobs I loved in university studies, the humanities, seven years as provost and dean of the faculty, and then, in 2001—2002, interim president.

In 2004 I returned to teaching. I was rusty, truly, an old rookie. I've always believed that the rock upon which all imaginative education rests is the conversation between students and faculty, and hoped I had led with that vision as guiding principle. But it's one thing to conceive of structures and programs, buildings and budgets that support and enhance teaching and scholarship. Another to teach. On the ground. I began again wondering if I'd still like it, and more, if I could still do it.

I began again with off-campus study, directing Colgate's London English Study Group, while my husband Hugh, a veteran director, took the economics group.

We were the first couple to take two study groups at the same time, and we left with some worries about having so many students in our charge. It was a joy, even as there were housing problems that needed extreme sorting; to know students at that close range, to travel with them to the homes of writers and painters, to Bloomsbury places, like Charleston farmhouse and Knole. To visit Cambridge and sit with Dame Gillian Beer, who taught our group in the small rooms at Kings College that had inspired the famous luncheon in A Room of One's Own. To walk Flanders fields, a life-changing experience in the gray and rain.

Act Three
What does one want to impart as a teacher and scholar? What ideas have I come back to? In part to the love of a subject matter — Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster's novels, for example, in an English senior seminar. Or the exploration of literary Alexandria, in my own writing, that took me to Seville this fall. To the mutual learning that involves confronting our times and their genesis, in that great Core course, The Challenge of Modernity. To the examination of the value of the liberal arts in contemporary society.

A humanities colloquium this fall gathered a group of teachers to discuss just such an issue. What I said then is perhaps a clue to why I teach, and so I give you a truncated version of those thoughts:

Can the humanities explore and define values? In answer to that question I can only tell an English teacher's story. It takes place 15 years ago at a lecture here at Colgate. The speaker was a member of the philosophy and religion department, a theologian and an ordained minister. One of his colleagues, a philosopher and an atheist, asked a pointed question. This was not quite a Hitchens debate, but it was heated and on the nature of belief. At the end of their exchange, the theologian threw up his hands and said, "to agree with what you've just proposed, one would need to believe in, for God's sake, no more than the Norton Anthology!"

I sat there, outside the argument, except that as he spoke I knew that I actually did believe in the Norton Anthology. After the people I like — which includes both of these men — and the people I love, my solace and comfort is in poetry and prose, in the making of words; it is from there that I get my sense of human possibility, my values.

I am reminded of E.M. Forster's 1940 essay "Does Culture Matter?" in which he portrays a world where people don't want books or art. Forster asks of his industrious neighbor: "Ought we to bother him?" with our arms, as it were "full of parcels, and say to him `I was given these specially to hand on to you . . . Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James. . . I'm afraid they're a little heavy but you'll love them in time . . .'" Forster's answer is yes, of course; but "What is needed," he suggests, "is to let one's light so shine that men's curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James should cause such disproportionate pleasure." He believes if we show our joy, we will persuade.

I teach because teaching and scholarship put me in touch with such conversations daily, with people who, in a range of fields, show disproportionate pleasure, and do so with undergraduates who are ready to engage, to knock down your arguments, to hear the wonder of W.H. Auden's tribute to W.B. Yeats:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
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