A short trip down memory lane takes me back to the small liberal arts college where I earned my undergraduate degree and to the two large public institutions where I earned my advanced degrees. While I am grateful for the technological advances that allowed me to email my professors, upload my assignments, and research my dissertation through the library’s online catalog, the experiences I remember most are my conversations and interactions with faculty.
My first psychology professor was a young doctoral student named Dr. Swan from the adjacent graduate school. She was recently married and just establishing herself as a faculty member. She was someone I could relate to and wanted to emulate. I hung on her every word, dissected her wardrobe, listened intently for clues about her life as a new wife and mother, and basically remembered very little about the developmental life stages and Freudian theory.
Fastforward ten years. My dissertation committee chair was a leading researcher in special education and disabilities. He held high positions in organizations leading the way in this field. He advised countless doctoral students, yet always gave me his full attention. After spending hours editing my dissertation and pouring over each chapter while being mindful of his critiques, what do I remember most about my committee chair? He taught in a hospital in Malawi, raised two daughters, bred golden retrievers, and liked to wear Hawaiian shirts.
I remember the personalities of my professors more than the equations, formulas, and theories they lectured about for hours. When I hear students talking about taking a class from a well-known professor, I know they are often drawn to the professor’s character more than the class content. Powerpoints, digital projectors, laptops, and wireless internet are powerful tools but they can’t replace the people behind them.
Students can find the answer to almost any question with a simple Google search. Our challenge as educators is to help them understand which questions to ask. And that happens in relationship – the way we model critical thinking, our response to complex social issues, and our commitment to life long learning. The information students need is already at their fingertips, but the transformation that takes place in higher education still requires a human connection.