President Steven Poskanzer

Teachers First and Forever

By Steven G. Poskanzer

Great teaching is foundational to Carleton. If we are to provide a truly superb, world-class liberal arts education, it must start with exceptional faculty members who are dedicated to their students’ learning and deeply invested in their success. Indeed, Carleton professors are talented scholars who make vital contributions to their respective disciplines while also being pedagogical innovators who foster a lively and intellectually challenging learning community.

U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks Carleton first in the nation for undergraduate teaching. I believe that this and other indicators of the quality of our teaching—especially testimonials from current students and our alumni about the rigor, intensity, and excitement of what takes place in classrooms and labs—give us real reason for pride (but never cockiness!).

The seriousness that students bring to their coursework is matched by the focus and energy faculty members bring to their course preparation and teaching. I recall here a chance conversation I had in the Sayles-Hill Student Center with a beloved and accomplished senior professor a few days before classes began. Her enthusiasm about students returning was mixed with genuine anxiety about whether she would be at the top of her pedagogical game for the very first session of class. She was palpably worried whether the latest version of one of her courses (a course I quickly came to understand that she refreshed—if not overhauled—annually) would live up to her hopes and goals. I doubt any student would ever sense the tension she felt. They would see only her eager joy and deep expertise. But here was a brilliant and gifted teacher who was just as nervous as a novice instructor. It was an inspiring reminder of what the Carleton faculty is justly known and admired for: devotion to great teaching and a desire to do right by their students.

Why are our faculty members so devoted to teaching? In part, it’s because of the very nature of a residential liberal arts college. Faculty members at such institutions do not have to divide their loyalties between graduate or postdoctoral students and undergraduates. They purposefully choose to teach at such schools because they value and seek to forge close connections and mentorship roles with undergrads. In fact, they often benefited from the exact same kind of guidance when they were at college, and seek to “pay it forward.”

It’s no coincidence that faculty ranks at top liberal arts colleges are filed with graduates of similar institutions—and certainly the Carleton faculty is proud to include many such alums. That said, Carleton’s shared commitment to teaching is distinctive even among its peers. You see this in the emphasis given to teaching ability when the school makes new faculty hires; the attention devoted to mentoring of junior faculty; the care with which students complete written evaluations of their instructors; the detailed scrutiny colleagues give to such student evaluations in making tenure decisions; the critical importance attached to in-class peer observations of teaching by departmental and disciplinary colleagues; and the robust attendance at sessions on effective and emerging pedagogy at the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching.

In this issue, you will read about some of Carleton’s distinguished professors who have devoted their careers to the noble work of teaching and are now moving on to retirement. As they reflect on what has sustained them and what they will miss most, you’ll see many of the same themes I’ve been discussing here. These sentiments are particularly relevant to me right now as I begin to plan for my upcoming role as a member of the Department of Political Science after taking a sabbatical during the next academic year.

Teaching classes on higher education law during my tenure as president has allowed me to see and marvel at the talent and earnest curiosity of our students. I’m eager to have the privilege and opportunity to do even more of this, as there is an immediacy, vibrancy, and meaning that one feels in a classroom and in mentoring students that cannot be replicated in any administrative meeting.

Much like the faculty members featured in the upcoming pages, my father was a professor of public health whose greatest joy was his relationships with his students. He truly cherished being able to see what they were doing years later and knowing that, in ways both large and small, he had helped them realize their dreams. As Carleton faculty members at all stages of their careers know and will happily confirm, nothing is more fulfilling than helping illuminate a path forward for our students. For this is what Carleton, at its core, is fundamentally about.

—Steven G. Poskanzer

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