What is an “educated” person?
For those who teach, such as the NIU Department of History’s E. Taylor Atkins, it’s an important question without consensus.
“Is it someone whose mind is a storehouse of data that can be recalled instantly? Or is an educated person a critical, free thinker and problem solver?” asks Atkins, who joins Christopher M. Jones from the Department of Political Sciences and Pamela A. Smith from the Department of Accountancy as this year’s Presidential Teaching Professors.
“If pressed, I would conceded that is more important for a student to know how to locate and critically assess information than to memorize it; the former skill never leaves us, the latter one is only as tenacious as memory allows,” he says. “Yet it is abundantly clear that there are many ‘free thinkers’ who don’t actually know anything, whose uninformed opinions – if stated loudly enough – make the search for truth even more difficult.”
He turns to a quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous.”
“Confucius recognized that knowledge is useless if we do not contemplate, question and reassess it,” Atkins says. “As a history teacher, I strive to help students think creatively and independently about the past from multiple perspectives, but to do so from a stance adequately informed about cultural context, chronology and the contingencies of events and personalities.”
Such devotion to seeking perfection in the craft of teaching is common among NIU faculty, three of whom are honored each year.
The Presidential Teaching Professorship designation was established in 1991 to recognize outstanding teachers who have demonstrated that:
- They instill and develop in students an intensity of interest in and an appreciation for the value of the subject.
- They apply rigorous standards to student performance, inspire students to become the best and stimulate student growth.
- They command respect and esteem as a teacher.
- They demonstrate extraordinary commitment to students and their welfare.
- They explore and develop effective instructional methods and technologies.
- They work actively with students, faculty, and administrators to improve undergraduate and/or graduate education at NIU.
Each receives budgetary support and release time for the enhancement of his or her teaching skills. After four years as a Presidential Teaching Professor, each is designated a Distinguished Teaching Professor.
“Teaching is Job No. 1 at NIU. Our professors not only give students the skills they need to enter their chosen professions but also open their minds to lifetimes of learning something new every day, to understanding why those lessons matter and to becoming productive members of society,” says Vice Provost Anne Birberick.
“Success in this mission takes a passion for the topic, an enthusiasm for the classroom and a dedication to innovation. Taylor Atkins, Chris Jones and Pam Smith are shining examples of professors with these qualities who allow us to see what can happen in a classroom when students are challenged, encouraged and inspired.”
Click on the names below to learn more about this year’s Presidential Teaching Professors:
This event is part of Celebrating Excellence at NIU, scheduled from Sunday, April 14, through Sunday, April 28. Celebrating Excellence highlights the accomplishments and contributions of NIU students, faculty, staff and alumni to the university’s mission of promoting excellence and engagement in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, creativity and artistry, and outreach and service during the academic year.