Stillman Prize Acceptance Speech
9 September 2003
Memorial Chapel, Union College
Davide P. Cervone
It is a privilege and an honor to receive the Stillman Prize tonight. When I first arrived on campus and was being introduced to various faculty in my building, one of them said, "So, you're the new Alan Taylor." I didn't know Alan very well at the time, and I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but took it as a compliment. A few days later, I was sitting in this hall at Convocation, and watched Alan Taylor receive the Stillman prize that year. It wasn't until then that I realized what large shoes I was being asked to fill.
As Dean Sorum mentioned, I teach mathematics. Most students come to a math course expecting to be told specific procedures to follow in order to solve a fixed set of problems, but I inform them that that is not what I'm going to do. One illustration I give them is the following. If I were an employer, and I had a problem for which I knew a process of solution, I would not hire them; I'd program a computer to carry out the process. It's faster, cheeper, more accurate, doesn't need vacation time or benefits, and doesn't have personal problems that interfere with its finding the solution. If all you can do is follow procedures, you will not be successful against a computer. What you need to do is find the things at which you are better than the computer, and those are knowing the right questions to ask, and knowing how to interpret the answers. These are the things the computer can't do, but you can. This means you need to be able to figure out procedures on your own, and recognize when information that you already know can be brought to bear against a situation you've never seen before. That takes practice, and mathematics, because of its precise and formal nature, is one of the best places to get that practice.
I find that I am spending more time talking about attitudes like this that stand in the way of real learning, and less on the details of the material of the class than I used to; that is, more on the process of learning, and less on the specific instance of learning. It is ironic that our role as teachers is to make ourselves obsolete, at least as far as any individual student is concerned. It is to foster in them the ability to learn even in our absence; that is, to be life-long learners. In a few short years, you students will be leaving here, and you will no longer have us to point the way for you. If you aren't in a position where you can analyze, interpret, and even develop, new ideas on your own, without anyone else's help, you will be ill-equipped to deal with the changing and complicated world you will be entering. In real life, there is no back of the book where you can find the answers; you will have to determine them yourself.
I've been asked (wisely) to keep my remarks short, so I will conclude by giving two pieces of advice: one for junior faculty members who are just developing their teaching style, and one for the students.
First, to the junior faculty I would say "stick to your guns." Keep your expectations high, and if there is something that you think is important, don't water it down. Our students often are capable of more than you may think. As long as it is clear to them that you have thought hard about what you ask them to do, and that it is important to your educational mission, they will try hard to do what you ask, and they may even surprise you. Talk to them about your vision of learning and education, and how they fit into that.
In particular, I encourage you to discuss plagiarism and collaboration. The students think very differently about this than we do, and this divide is growing larger. For example, some of them think it's OK to plagiarize as long as they don't get caught. Is it really the presence or absence of an outside observer that determines the morality of an act? Another student once told me that if she likes a professor, she would never cheat in his class, but if she doesn't like him, then it's OK to buy his paper off the internet. Does this mean that if I like a student, I should take time to grade her work carefully, but if I don't like her, then it's OK just to give her a C?
We are losing this battle, and we need to do something about it soon. Talk about your views on plagiarism and how they relate to your class specifically. Talk about how it affects them as individuals and how it affects you when they cheat. I have been surprised by the responses that I've had to this.
To the students, I would say "be open to change." You need to measure yourself against the profound ideas to which you are being exposed. If you find you don't agree with some idea, ask yourself why you feel that way; what is it in you that prevents you from accepting that idea? Then examine that belief and see if it is as strong as you thought it was. If not, you may need to rethink it in light of the new idea. Artemus Ward once wrote, "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we do know that just ain't so." Don't forget to look for the things you know that just ain't so. Turn off the TV and the radio; turn off the walkman, the cellphone, the gameboy, and take some quiet time to compare yourself to the new ideas that you are experiencing. That's the key to real learning.
In closing, I would like to thank Mr. Stillman for his generous gift that makes this award possible. I thank the Committee on Teaching for their efforts in evaluating and selecting the recipient of this prize. Thanks also go to the Mathematics department for their support and mentorship of me these past seven years. I thank my parents, who are here in the audience, for their encouragement and example throughout my life. Finally, I thank the students who have made my teaching experience an enjoyable and rewarding one. I feel truly blessed and honored to receive this prestigious award. Thank you.