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Hope and the Art of Teaching

September 5, 2014

"The difficult I'll do right now

The impossible will take a little while."

 — Billie Holiday from “Crazy He Calls Me”


 “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”

-- Vaclav Havel, The Impossible Will Take a Little While


I wanted my first blog posting of the academic year to welcome you back in different manner. I suppose you could call this blog posting an example of the scholarship of application because I’m going to apply an idea I came across while reading the book The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Rogat Loeb and apply to another domain area, namely the noble art of teaching.

Book CoverAt first glance I wasn’t sure that I’d like the book by Mr. Loeb but as I began to read more of the essays I was pulled into the theme and was moved by the message. The book is a collection of essays written by people who have led or are leading political and social movements for positive change yet are faced with tremendous forces against such change; people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Cornel West, and Bill McKibben. How do these leaders persevere when fighting for change whether it is about civil rights, apartheid, global warming, or gay rights? What keeps them going?

The message, then, is how they nurture hope against immense odds. What I admired about the message is that these writers go to great length to articulate the difference between optimism and hope; they are not the same. Optimism, as Vaclav Havel writes, is "the conviction that something will turn out well”, while hope is "the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." A Jim Wallis quote from the book, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change,” serves as an excellent elaboration of this notion. The activists fighting to reverse global warming, for example, do not know that what they do will actually result in a cooling of the earth but, rather, they have conviction to do what they do because they know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do. Others, like Martin Luther King, had his faith to drive him forward and so he maintained his sense of hope. The fact of the matter is that these unique individuals do not rely on results or outcomes to keep them going but instead on their own internal moral, ethical, or spiritual compass.

I could not help but think about what educators do in light of this notion of hope. Let me be clear that I take an inclusive perspective with the definition of educator;  I consider all of us - faculty, staff, and administrators - educators because we are all drawn here with the same goal of transforming the lives of our students. In a certain sense, we educators have to have this sense of hope because we can't expect to see the results of our work immediately. A faculty member wants his or her students to learn specific skills and they can demonstrate that learning through assignments, tests, and projects. But we also want the students to appreciate and master critical thinking, analysis, logical deduction, communication, cultural awareness and so on. These 'outcomes' may not manifest themselves in the fullest sense in our students at the end of the semester or even by the time our students graduate. So what keeps us going? I submit it is this nuanced notion of hope. It is our conviction that what we do to transform the lives of our students is noble and right. And yes, this ‘faith’ keeps us going and sometimes we are surprised when a student from the distant past contacts us and thanks us for how we transformed their lives. Why else would we do this?

Education is a noble endeavor but it can, from time to time, seem as though we are not getting through to our students. But through our 'hope' we continue to do what we internally feel is right. The optimist inside me knows that we will succeed.

Welcome back.