Finding My Why

– Paul Woodburne


Paul Woodburne

I liked Leah Chambers’ piece in HIH about ‘finding her why.’ I like teaching and always have. My parents knew from the time I was young that I would be a faculty professor. I enjoy the work, but Leah’s piece asked me to reflect on WHY I do it. I was initially unable to answer that seemingly simple question. It was not until after some very nice brain picking, aided by generous dollops of caffeine and congenial company, that something like an answer began to surface.

I think that the experience of the last several years has contributed to my misplacing my ‘Why’. Over the past few years we have been hit with many things with which we feel legitimate dissatisfaction. Morale has been lower than it has ever been, and folks are, understandably, less than interested in doing work beyond that required when we have felt undervalued and underappreciated. When we get together, the conversation often revolves around dissatisfaction with our jobs. This has become the glue that holds many of us together.

This attitude is not healthy for us. Many of us find it impossible to generate and expend the energy to do good work for ourselves, the students, the university and community when our glue is a negative glue.

If this situation has caused many of us to misplace our ‘Whys,’ then we need to find a new glue, our reason for being here. Most of us got into teaching to teach, to reach new minds, to mold thinking, to excite young people about what our fields have to offer, etc. Over the past few years we have been distracted by frequent crises. Students, and our teaching, used to be much more central to our life.

To recapture a lost ‘Why,’ I need to intentionally and deliberately put my effort back into my students and my teaching.

Clarion is among the top schools in PASSHE in attracting transfer students. These students are a main driver of increased enrollment. These students were somewhere else and were dissatisfied. They are ‘finicky’ shoppers and have the least initial connection to Clarion. They are also some of our most important students at this juncture in our history. This current situation is a challenge, but it seems also to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

We have to work hard and teach well if we are to hold onto these students. Fortunately, if we do this well, we will attract other first-time-in-college students, who have been our bread and butter for most of our 150 years.

Doing ‘good teaching’ has many aspects. Among these are to be enthusiastic about the field, to treat students with respect, to stretch students’ thinking, to be clear in getting points across during class, and to be well versed in the best pedagogy and apply that pedagogy in class. All but the last are under our own control, though they may suffer under the conditions described above. The last aspect often requires some outside expertise, and/or faculty development.

Institutionalized faculty development has been one of the major casualties of the past few years of fiscal decline. I know that I have stagnated pedagogically during this time. I learned new techniques in years past. Some I still use, and others I do not. The ones that I still use are now 10-15 (or more) years old. With my time, intelligence, and attention distracted in different directions, my once favorite pedagogy may have fallen from favor. If so, I do not know it.

Fortunately, some bright spots exist. There are a number of individuals and groups on campus who fill much of the gap left by declines in institutional support. Partners in Teaching, Learning and Assessment has met for more than 20 years and held yearly workshops, recently with no financial support. The Learning Technology Center has sponsored two to three workshops per year for many years. The Center for First Year Experience is also reinvigorating the teaching climate at Clarion University. The new Freshman Inquiry Seminars were deliberately created to infuse high-impact practices into the classroom. I have learned a lot from the opportunities each offered.

I don’t have a timeless ‘Why’ I teach, but I have found a current ‘Why.’ After nearly 20 years at CUP, my current ‘Why’ is to redouble my efforts to teach as well as I can, to make students like my field, and leave college thinking like an economist about topics where that mindset is a good thing. In particular, I want to learn as much as I can about teaching effectively to those students who are currently those least connected to Clarion. The better I can reach those least connected, the better I can reach all my students.

In this age of limited funding, the main resource we have at Clarion is each other. Even if we have limited institutional funds for professional development, we have each other. We have the collected wisdom of a large number of committed faculty in a wide range of fields about what has worked and what they have learned. In this environment, perhaps we can make our own support. My ‘Why’ is to lead where I can, follow where I can, join where I can, contribute where I can, and do what I can do to connect to those least connected to Clarion University. I hope my colleagues will join me.

I will see you Friday afternoons at Michelle’s as often as I can.

Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

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