Finding meaning

Jeanne M. Slattery

I am trying to post here once per week but, in addition to classes, I also have meetings, advising, letters to write, fires to put out, and lots and lots of grading. Last week I had about 70 papers to read and three groups of smaller assignments. My seniors are pulling together their final projects, which take considerable additional work. I was briefly caught up, but now there’s more, although these assignments are somewhat smaller and easier to get through. This passes for progress and feels good.

Elisabeth Donato, with her former student Andrew Russell. By permission.

Elisabeth Donato, with her former student Andrew Russell, who now teaches both Spanish and French himself. By permission.

It doesn’t always feel good, though. My university’s attacks on faculty productivity and programs have left many of us feeling unappreciated and unvalued, even those of us who are not currently under attack. Bottom line, what seems to count is solely “butts in seats” (i.e., number of majors and credit production). Other things research and writing, innovative teaching, and thoughtful advising seem only to get lip service.

This time of year it’s easy to become more frustrated by the teaching and grading, so I asked my Facebook friends what they like about teaching. Some focused on the ways that they profit from the process of teaching:

The unexpected avenues of thinking that emerge in class discussions. I learn. Students learn. Win-win! (Ellen Foster, English)

I get to learn new things about mathematics all the time. (Sure, I already have a PhD in it, but keep in mind that we’ve basically just been adding to it for several thousand years. Heck, there are tiny, minor subfields of mathematics that are so vast that it is commonly accepted that no one person can understand all of it.) I like learning mathematics, so this is a plus. (John Hoggard, Mathematics)

Many of my Facebook friends (Ellen and John included) focused on the changes they observe in their students, which provide them with an intense sense of meaning and purpose:

What I like most, I think, about teaching at the university level, is to see young men and women mature through the four (sometimes five or six) years that they spend at the institution where I teach….

It is amazing how many students who were timid and tentative as freshmen absolutely blossom and become intellectually curious and strongly motivated to learn more and do more to improve their academic life at Clarion University. It is also a great feeling for me to be able to contribute to this blossoming. (Elisabeth Donato, French)

The “ah ha” moment when they understand. (Amanda Lockwood, Chemistry)

Two things come to mind: I love getting to share a field I really love with new people. (I particularly love it when those people find it as interesting as I do.) Secondly, I feel I’m contributing to the public good, by helping produce a more educated populace with better opportunities to engage more fully in public, professional, and even personal domains. (John Hoggard)

When I was a girl my secret ambition was to be so very good at understanding others, and at explaining myself, that I would be able to communicate with aliens. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind rolled out when I was about sixteen and my secret ambition wasn’t secret any longer and was also no longer mine alone.

But I did approach realization of this core ambition when I became first a musician/teacher and later a mathematician/teacher. Music and mathematics share the properties of being both substantive content, and also the language which conveys the content.

And that is what I love about teaching; engaging with alien minds in communion about these deep things because after all, any mind which is not my own is alien to me to effect clean clear communication. It is a visceral pleasure for me, this meeting together in the realm of the mind. (Emily Sprague, Mathematics)

Ziker (2014)

From Ziker (2014)

University faculty work hard according to one study, about 60 hours/week with a significant proportion of that work devoted to teaching (Ziker, 2014). Rather than let our worth be based on our administration’s valuation in simple terms (i.e., money and productivity), or our students’ emphasis on grades, I think we should follow the lead of the people responding to my informal survey (and the consensus of the published research): we should search for what offers us a sense of meaning and purpose. When we search for meaning, we don’t expect that the teaching process will always be easy and smooth, but expect and even value the work as part of achieving our ultimate goals. When we fail to obtain this sense of meaning and purpose, on the other hand, when we fail to find congruence between our goals, values, and environment (e.g., we don’t believe we are making a difference), we become stressed, anxious, and depressed.

The good news is that humans are meaning-making beings. Viktor Frankl (1959/2006) found meaning during his time in Auschwitz and believed that this meaning was necessary to his survival and others’. Similarly, others argue that finding and maintaining a positive sense of meaning can allow us to handle a range of stressors more effectively (Park, 2010). We, too, can look for and create a sense of meaning that helps us through difficult times, even if that difficult time is only the end of the semester.  (Only?)

Making meaning can take time and energy at this time of year. We may need to remember those students we’ve particularly impacted, those students who have grown significantly over their college careers, the meeting of minds. When we are stressed/anxious/depressed we focus on and ruminate about the problems perhaps to attempt to solve them yet finding such successes can energize, motivate, and refocus us.


Frankl, V. E. (1959/2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 257–301.

Ziker, J. (2014). The long, lonely job of Homo academicus. Blue Review. Retrieved from

Thanks to Melissa Downes for her insightful comments on earlier drafts of this blog and  for my colleagues’ generosity in sharing their reflections on the value of teaching in their lives.

Jeanne Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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