“Stimulating students’ curiosity so that they are intrinsically motivated to learn and to seek excellence ought to be considered the most important, albeit too often disregarded, mission of teaching.”
In traditional Chinese culture, two proverbs are widely used to praise teachers. The first states, “Teachers are analogous to gardeners who take good care of the flowers (students) of the nation.” The other, “One day as a teacher, a lifetime as a father.” Reflecting on my own past experience in both teaching and learning, I realize that neither the gardener nor the father should be held as ideal or even appropriate roles for teachers in higher education. Gardeners are responsible for cultivating and protecting all types of plants. If teachers are gardeners, students would be the shrubs or flowers who passively wait to be taken care of and given everything they need. Under these circumstances, how could we ever expect students to truly internalize the values of learning, or to proactively acquire vital knowledge in our absence? Likewise, fathers symbolize authority that should not be challenged, discussed, or disobeyed. Blind obedience, unfortunately, stifles students’ creativity and critical thinking skills, which negatively impacts their academic independence. By turning themselves into fine replicas of their advisors at best, students under this system can seldom contribute to scholarly conversations in meaningful and innovative ways.
What, then, is the proper role of a professor? I firmly believe that professors are akin to tour guides. They are primarily responsible for exposing students to and helping them appreciate knowledge of the world. Due to our strong familiarity with the subject matter and acquired knowledge, we are adept at offering students an overview of the academic world through which to transform their instinct-driven interests into potential research topics. An open pedagogical approach as such will enable students to successfully combat their natural tendencies to fall back on “superficial learning,” liberate themselves from self-imposed constraints, and willingly approach their tasks and decisions at hand more flexibly and creatively.
Facing a diverse student population whose prior educational experience and levels of readiness are likely to vary greatly, I have realized that not every student is intellectually prepared for or motivated by this type of independent learning process. Hence, although my overarching goal is to transform student learning from simply “absorbing” existing knowledge into a self-motivating active process, I am well aware that the attainment of this objective is premised on the fact that students must be well equipped with foundational knowledge and skills. Inspired by this insight, my favored approach to teaching is thus cushioned and enhanced by my unshaking determination to pass on basic knowledge, accessibility in the classroom, and amiable personality.
In summary, my teaching style is based on and honors a principle of activating and subsequently strengthening students’ own commitment to lasting learning. Serving as an academic tour guide who never paternalistically dictates students’ scholastic trajectories, I will employ all resources at my disposal to “travel” with my students to various destinations and through various eras considered paradigmatic to the field. Students’ progress and enriched understanding of the learning process, in turn, will justify the purpose of education in exactly the spirit I am eager to convey.