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Commentary: The art of teaching

Like many teachers, I feel like I am always grading papers. I remember my beautiful mama, who was an outstanding high school home economics teacher, sitting in her favorite wingback chair, with an endless pile of papers at her feet to review. As I write this, Western Illinois University is in the final week of classes and I am sitting on my couch at 10 pm toggling between papers to grade and a commentary to write. Sometimes I wonder who in the world assigns all this work? I am sure my students feel the same way.

This semester, I am teaching three courses in addition to supervising two independent honors projects. That’s approximately 70 students. Multiply this by 4 and that’s about 280 papers to grade over the course of the semester. I suppose I could assign multiple choice exams and let algorithms do the grading, but I am more interested in teaching students how to learn, rather than what to learn.

As a cultural anthropologist, one of my goals is to teach my students the art of seeing. Michael Wesch, a Kansas State University anthropologist and recipient of the Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year Award, writes that the art of seeing “...can be broken up into four parts. First, we have to see our own seeing—that is, see how we see the world, recognizing our own taken-for-granted assumptions, and be able to set them aside. Second, we have to “see big,” to see the larger cultural, social, economic, historical, and political forces that shape our everyday lives. Third, we have to “see small,” paying close attention to the smallest details and understanding their significance. And finally, we have to “see it all,” piecing all of this together to see how everything we can see interacts from a holistic point of view.” I think that the majority of my students have been able to master the art of seeing this semester, as documented in their latest papers in my new class on medicinal plants and healing.

Their last assignment was to select one ailment of their choice – alcoholism, smoking, PTSD, end of life anxiety, depression - and write a persuasive essay either for or against the use of plant-based psychedelics as medicine. They were to find at least three scholarly sources to support their argument. As I always tell my students, I don’t care whether you argue for or against the subject, just show me you know how to think and can construct a persuasive argument.

As I read these papers, I am floored by the humanity and quality of work my students are doing. This is a fully online course and as such we haven’t had the opportunity to build a community in the traditional classroom. No matter. We zoom, chat, and using various forms of technology we have developed trust and an open line of communication amongst ourselves even though we live in several different time zones and all over the world. Their papers share deeply personal stories of family members living with PTSD and addiction.

Although these are individual stories, students have also demonstrated that they have mastered the art of seeing big, as they deconstruct the socio-cultural, political and economic forces that influence the research and development of potential psychedelic treatments. Through library research and cross-cultural comparison, they have learned how different cultures heal those who are ill and see the connection between the health of our species and that of the entire planet. Despite the modality of the course, I want to hug them all for doing the hard work, sharing their personal stories, and learning how to think - not what to think.

As we close out this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s give our teachers more than token cupcakes and Starbucks. Let’s finally acknowledge that our jobs are real jobs, that require more than nine-month contracts, and barely living wages. Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions. As a Chinese Proverb says, “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” If we want this grand experiment of the United States to survive, we need to invest in, respect, and elevate our teachers. They are one of our greatest resources.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.