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The Highest Calling

By Joel Seligman

I love teaching. Although more of my career as a professor has been devoted to research and scholarship, nothing that I have done in my 29 years as an academic can compare to the intellectual excitement of meeting with students.

Most of my classes have been taught through what is misnamed “Socratic dialogue” and what is in fact a question-and-answer format with students. By posing questions and responding to their answers, we occasionally have “Socratic” moments where the very nature of a question leads students to new insights. What is most striking to me is how much I learn from my students.

Each text has a prismatic quality and inevitably will present different facts and different standards particularly worthy of comment. As I listen to students, I am inevitably impressed by their wisdom, their ability to grasp complexity, their growth throughout the semester.

This semester is my first back in the classroom in two years. I am teaching a seminar in constitutional law, sometimes nicknamed “Greatest Hits of the Supremes.” During the semester, I am introducing the students to the history of the Supreme Court, several leading constitutional law decisions, and legal reasoning itself. In doing so, I have been reminded why I became a teacher in the first place. There were two reasons: The freedom to write in a thoughtful way about important legal issues and the joy of teaching.

The joy never fades. To be sure, I do not have as much time to prepare as when I first began, and it now takes a little longer for students to realize that the purpose of one of my classes is a conversation where every opinion matters and we all join in a discussion of ideas. My class meets late in the day and sometimes because of my schedule has to meet even later. Pizza, I have discovered, is the ultimate equalizer.

The University has a remarkable devotion to great teaching, and it is a particular pleasure to have joined this outstanding faculty.

A great example is the Warner School’s Nancy Ares, this spring’s recipient of the University-wide G. Graydon Curtis and Jane W. Curtis Award for excellence in teaching by untenured faculty members. Students consistently evaluate her courses as “among the best that [they] have taken” and “exceptional.” A case in point is her revamping of Warner’s introductory doctoral research methods course, which coupled with other initiatives, has led to an increase in Ed.D. students at Warner.

In the College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering, Dan Watson, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and one of the recipients of the 2006 Goergen Awards, is described as an innovative, generous, and extraordinary teacher. Students emphasize his gift for explaining difficult material. As one student put it, “It’s special to have a professor so good that he can give homework sets that take 40 hours a week, and you learn so much that you thank him for it.”

To give one final example among many other outstanding faculty, David Kaufman, an associate professor of surgery, medicine, anesthesia, and medical humanities, received not one but three teaching awards last year: the Harry L. Segal Prize for Excellence in Third Year Teaching, the Herbert M. Mapstone Prize for Excellence in Second Year Teaching, and the Keith Miner Ford Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Kaufman is renowned as a “gifted educator and clinician who excels in . . . communicating his knowledge of medicine to his students while demonstrating his compassion and humanism to his . . . patients and their families in the most difficult of circumstances.”

I titled this essay, “The Highest Calling.” I mean that quite literally. If, through our teaching we inspire our students in their lives, their careers, their humanity, we have achieved what is most precious about our University. Plato wrote of teaching that “it was like the spark that leaped from each to each.” At Rochester, the presence of great teachers is integral to our identity.