Teaching and Mentoring statement
Teaching is not simply instruction. Instructions are what you get with an unassembled IKEA dining room table, which typically has more parts than necessary, and fewer than actually fit together. Teaching is something altogether different. To explore that difference, it is worth reflecting on the distinction between a teacher, a good teacher and a great teacher. Considering the derivation of the word, a teacher is one who points, presents or declares. In the context of the university, a teacher is one who points out facts and imparts knowledge. But what makes a good teacher? A good teacher, in addition to imparting knowledge, truly engages students, making the material relevant to them in their academic and personal lives, empowering them to think and act in the world. What, then, makes a great teacher? A great teacher, beyond imparting knowledge and engaging students, actively diminishes the intellectual distance between the teacher and the student. A great teacher draws students closer within the domain of knowledge under consideration, and invites them, indeed welcomes them, into that academy, making them more than just recipients, but rather active participants in that intellectual discipline, full partners in the work —and the joy— of producing knowledge. And, considering the extraordinary privilege of teaching our NYU undergraduates every year, this latter view is both my inspiration and my aspiration.
In my view, a mentor’s job is not to provide a road map, but rather a compass. This enables students to find their own north as they seek to figure out the next steps in their academic (and often their personal) lives. After 40 plus years in this profession, there are certainly common themes that emerge among students that I mentor, ranging from research questions to questions of work-life balance.
Nonetheless, I am constantly impressed by the unique nature of each student’s hopes, fears and talents. And in this context, the act of not just listening, but of hearing students’ individual issues and concerns cannot be overestimated. Indeed, it is only through this act that I can really mentor, and it is through it that I learn at least as much from my students as they learn from me. I am lucky that mentoring does not end when a student graduates. Staying in touch with these wonderful students for years after they leave NYU has provided me with an extended sense of connection to them and, has, I hope, helped them navigate their way in their professional and personal lives. A single example: several years ago one of my students, aptly named Sage, won a Fulbright and headed to Norway to work in a Nobel Laurate’s laboratory after graduation. I just got a note from her yesterday telling me that she is now an MD/PhD student at Northwestern. She will be in town next week and will stop by for coffee and conversation. That will be a good day.