Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Crowd that Makes the Renowned

The 2010 U.S. Professors of the Year who are also ΦBK at the Capitol Hill reception. Pictured left to right: ΦBK Associate Secretary Scott Lurding, Lendol Calder, Deborah C. Stearns, Andrew W. Kindon, Betsy A. Bowen, Mike Veseth, Frances Tiller Pilch and ΦBK Secretary John Churchill.

It's been a big year for me, a year full of accolades and recognition.  I was named the 2010 Maryland Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).  This is one of the most prestigious awards honoring professors, and the only national award for undergraduate teaching.  As a result, I was also featured in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in a spot on MCTV, Montgomery College's television station.

Footage from my class was even included in a promotional film for Montgomery College that played in local movie theaters (you'll see me at about 1:44 minutes).

It was a tremendous honor to receive this award, and very gratifying to have my work recognized.  But, to be honest, I also find it a little uncomfortable to have so much attention focused on me, in part because it misses the collaborative nature of any successful effort.  It's true that I work hard and strive for excellence in what I do, but I could not possibly accomplish my goals without the support of colleagues, administrators, students, friends, and family.  Yes, I am the founder and coordinator of the Psychology Brown Bag Series at Montgomery College, but it is successful because my wonderful colleagues generously contribute their time and expertise as speakers, as well as advertising the events in their classes.  Of course, we'd be talking to ourselves were it not for the enthusiastic attendance of students, faculty, and staff, who regularly fill up the room with vibrant discussion.  Speaking of rooms, we depend upon the support of administrators and staff, as we use the resources of the college for each Psychology Brown Bag.  Our administrative assistant, Linda Hankey, and our student aides provide vital help with setup and cleanup.  Q makes the pesto (from a family recipe) that I use for the ever-popular pasta that I bring.  In other words, I may be credited with running this series, but it takes a village to make these events happen.

In an individualistic culture, like ours, we tend to laud individual achievement, giving less attention to our intrinsic interdependence.  As I toured the National Portrait Gallery, for example, I was suddenly struck by the way in which the majority of the portraits were depictions of the person alone, with no others in the frame.  It was a surprise to see those few portraits that did include more than one person.  In an exhibit like The Struggle for Justice, that frames the struggle for equal rights as primarily the accomplishment of famous historical figures, rather than a broader movement that required the efforts of many to enact social change.  In other words, we remember the leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. as instrumental in the civil rights movement, and we forget the thousands who marched with him and worked with him.

Collectivistic cultures, on the other hand, tend to emphasize group identity, rather than personal identity, and stress the collaborative efforts needed to accomplish the task.  After winning a medal, Olympic athletes in individualistic cultures like the United States focus on their personal attributes (e.g., strength, speed, determination) as critical for success.  In collectivistic cultures like Japan, Olympic athletes include a more holistic focus that includes the role of others (e.g., coach, family) as well as their own personal attributes in their success (Markus et al., 2006).  I was intrigued to learn from the curators at the National Portrait Gallery that there are few portrait galleries outside of the United States and Western Europe.  It may be that the whole notion of portraiture emphasizes the individual, rather than the group, and thus would be more consistent with an individualistic culture. 

Of course, both perspectives hold a portion of truth.  The individual runner crosses the line through her own effort and that of countless others who provided the essential support that facilitated her success.  My tendency is to lean away from the relentless focus on the individual that characterizes our culture, to remember the many different contributions needed for any successful endeavor.  Given the necessity of collective effort, then what am I to make of my own role?  It is clearly hubris to claim that my success is merely due to my own efforts, so on what merits am I singled out for praise?

Perhaps my role is that of catalyst.  The Psychology Brown Bag Series is not solely the result of my effort, but I did suggest the idea to my colleagues, drawing inspiration from the coffee hours that Dr. Henry Gleitman held when I took his General Psychology course as an undergraduate and my love of intellectual conversation.  I encourage my colleagues to present in the series, and most semesters, I give a presentation myself.  True, I couldn't do it without a whole lot of help and support, but maybe it wouldn't have happened without my instigation.  In that sense, I like the framing of the On Her Shoulders We Stand award that I received this semester from the Women's Studies Program at Montgomery College, as it emphasizes the ways in which we rely on others for support and inspiration.  I don't stand alone; no one does.  I am proud, however, to be able to play a role, however small, in lifting up others and facilitating positive change, just as others do for me.  After all, the role of the educator is to be a catalyst for change -- to create opportunities for learning, for growth, for transformation. 

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." --- William Butler Yeats

"Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself." --- John Dewey

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." --- Nelson Mandela


Markus, H. R., Uchida, Y., Omoregie, H., Townsend, S. M., & Kitayama, S. (2006).  Going for the gold:  Models of agency in Japanese and American contexts.  Psychological Science, 17, 103-112.

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