Teaching Awards Ceremony

April 25, 2005

Catherine A. Rigsby – Chair of the Faculty


There was a special section on education in the Sunday New York Times this week.  I read it with great interest and a little sadness.  Interest, because like you I value education and am always eager to read about university teaching.  Sadness, because it painted such a negative picture of the state of teaching in US universities.  It is too bad the section’s authors didn’t come to East Carolina University.  If they had, they may have painted a completely different picture. 

One article contained statistics from the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement.  Statistics showing that one-fifth of undergraduates are "disengaged.”  According to the survey director (George D. Kuh)  being disengaged means that, among other things, students don’t take many different types of courses and don’t put much energy into the courses they do take – because they don’t have to do so to graduate.

The same article also quoted Richard H. Hersh, a former president of Hobart and William Smith College.  Hersh characterized teaching at large state institutions as a “mutual nonaggression pact” between students and faculty.  In this pact, faculty see teaching as a requirement – something they HAVE to do in order to do the research they prefer.  These faculty go to class, but don’t ask much of the students.  In return, the students don’t ask much of the faculty.  And the entire bargain is camouflaged by the evaluation system:  the faculty give out reasonably high grades, in return they get satisfactory student evaluations and the students don’t complain about their grades and don’t comment about whether they’ve learned much.  According to Hersh, this “disgrace” is endemic in large state universities.

I wish Dr. Hersh was on our campus today.  He would see that not all faculty and not all large public institutions fit his stereotype.  He would see that here at ECU, thanks to excellent, caring faculty, there are many students who are actively engaged in their educations.

And he would see that ECU – a large state university – puts a high value on helping students connect and on excellent teaching.  Teaching that introduces students to diverse topics and interests. Teaching that helps students experience what Doris Betts called “mental fusion” – which, like its nuclear counterpart, releases energy.

All of you who have been nominated stand in defiance of all the negative stereotypes.  You understand that teaching is the main reason we are here.  The main reason East Carolina University is in existence.  It is not the only reason, but it is the most important reason.  The fact of the matter is that it is through teaching that we will have the greatest impact on our students, our community, and our nation.  It is through teaching that we will affect the lives of the most people.  This is an immense and difficult responsibility.  And the faculty here at ECU are eagerly willing and able to take it on.

You should be particularly proud to be here today – to have been selected as the best teachers at East Carolina University.  Many of you are active and excellent in research as well, but you have not engaged in a “mutual nonaggression pact.”  Instead, you have strived for and achieved (!) excellence in the classroom. 

Congratulations on your nomination!  It is a significant honor that is not to be taken lightly.  It is a symbol of what we value at ECU.  And it says that you are the best of the best.  Thank you for what you do. Thank you for defying the stereotypes.  And, thank you for keeping teaching at the forefront of what we do well at ECU.  You, your classes, and your students are all examples of what large state institutions can be – and what ECU is and always has been!