Tomorrow's Academic Careers
The posting below is a moving account of lessons learned in over 50 years of teaching. looks atIt is by Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in English, Philip D. Ortego y Gasca, Ph.D., , Texas A&M University-Kingsville; Emeritus Professor of English, Texas State University System-Sul Ross. [email@example.com]. Copyright ?2006 by the author. All rights reserved. . Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Academic Careers
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Reflections on More Than Half a Century of Teaching
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Sixty years ago in 1946 when I returned from the War after a stint in the Marines I never imagined a life as a teacher. I had barely finished the 9th grade when I enlisted in the Marines during the dark days of the Second World War. My thoughts were not on teaching but on earning a living and making my way in the world.
My preparation for that world of work consisted of vocational training I received in Junior High and my one year of high school-principally courses in metal and wood-working. In the Marine Corps I had acquired life experiences and the rank of Platoon Sergeant that would serve me well. At 20, I was not without skills to get by on. However, I was certainly not ready for the intellectual rigors of college or university studies, an aspiration not on my event horizon at the time.
After two years in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, I dared to think of college as a venue for prosperity in my life. In those two years of back-wrenching labor on the ore-trestle of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Works I thought about my father and his arduous life as a gandy-dancer for various railroads in the mid-west, a life that made him old before his time; and I thought about my mother who endured the travails of those travels inbrutal climes.
That epiphany impelled me towards the Veterans Administration in Pittsburgh to inquire about college. I had no idea what that meant. My father had only three years of schooling and my mother less. In the early 20's, in the aftermath of the Mexican Civil War, they made their way from Guanajuato, Mexico, to the United States where their children were born. I was the oldest, born in 1926 in Blue Island, Illinois, on a return trip to San Antonio from Minnesota where\ my parents had been picking beets. San Antonio was home.
Fortuitously, the Veteran's Administration in Pittsburgh placed me at the University of Pittsburgh as a provisional student. At war's end in 1945, Chancellor Fitzgerald at the University of Pittsburgh had committed Pitt to accept any veteran regardless of academic preparation. That's how I started at Pitt in the Fall of 1948. Needless to say, my initiation into academe was grueling. At the end of my first semester I was placed on academic probation. But I persisted and by the time I became a Junior I had pretty much gotten the hang of what it took to make the grade in academe.
I majored in comparative studies-English, Spanish, French, Italian-taking education courses at the same time. In the Spring of 1952 I completed student teaching at a nearby high school. That Fall the high school offered me a teaching post in French. That was 54 years ago. When I made the transition to University teaching at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces in 1964, I was the French teacher at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas, where I had co-authored a high school French text.
After that I had a succession of academic appointments in various colleges and universities, including the University of Houston, the University of Texas at El Paso, Arizona State University, San Jose State University, the University of Colorado, and a Fulbright in Argentina. At UT El Paso I received the "Most Honored Faculty Award" from the Student Association; and later, I received the "Distinguished Faculty Award" from the Texas Association of Chi-canos in Higher Education.
I earned the M.A. in English from the University of Texas and the Ph.D. in English from the University of New Mexico. When I was 73, just before the millennium, I retired from full-time teaching, but have continued to teach part time as a Lecturer in English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville where my wife is professor and director of the university library.
I've cited this background because it bears directly on how my philosophy of student-centered teaching has emerged, evolving out of my experiences as a Spanish-speaker in the United States, acquiring a universe of knowledge in a second language. More importantly, though, my regard for the students in my classes is born out of my regard for the diversity of human life and languages on the planet. I've witnessed and experienced the result of disregarding that diversity in schools and in public.
For me a university is first and foremost its students. Faculty and staff are in place to support students. The age of academic arrogance and elitism was never consistent with the principles of democracy, therefore the spirit of egalitarianism mediates my interactions with students. My presence in the classroom is to help them acquire the skills of language and literature as part of their erudition . But I hope they learn much more than that. I hope they learn about civility and tolerance.
I enter the classroom cheerfully, bidding them all good-day, acknowledging them by name. I make it a point to learn their names as quickly as possible and to correct any mispronunciation of their names. From the start I explain that we will respect all ideas and commentary in the classroom. We go over the syllabus and other ground rules, making sure the students understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from me.
Most often, students characterize my classes as rigorous but fair. One principle governs lectures: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them what you told them you were going to tell them, and close by telling them that you told them what you were going to tell them. Jejeune as that may sound, this is a reinforcement technique that has worked for me.
In my classes I allow for all perspectives and points of view. I use the blackboard for items that require visualization-mostly patterns, spelling, and connections. I don't hide behind the lectern as if it were a battlement or a moat between the students and me. Nor do I sit casually on the desk facing students conversationally. I don't disapprove of that style, but for me a classroom inspires a bit more formality. I strive to maintain an air of participation in the classroom. To that end I employ humor.
I engage students by name and challenge them Socratically to think through their commentaries. Whatever their responses, they get no sarcasm from me. Nor do I reprove them like a scolding parent for infractions. This is not to say that I'm permissive with them. I regard them as adults, not children.
Regardless of what education pundits broadcast, there is no litmus test to assess our impact on students. Quizzes, tests, evaluations don't always get it right. Decades may pass before we realize how some teacher affected our intellectual development. After all these years of teaching I am delighted to receive notes from former students who remember my classes and who acknowledge me as one of their mentors.