May 7, 2018

KANKANHALLI | Who Taught You That?

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It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week! I, for one, am proud to express my gratitude for my educators past and present…from the comfort of my bedroom, as I consciously neglect attending class…but still! Gratitude!

Laziness aside, it’s crucial to actively realize the impact of educators. The humility that characterizes most teachers I’ve known frequently goes unrecognized. Given that I’m tempted to scream from the rooftops every time I even remotely follow a question on a problem set, it’s incredible that professors remain cool and collected with the massive knowledge banks hidden in their minds.

Of course, generalizations are tricky. In my twelve years of public schooling and subsequent three years at Cornell, I’ve had a variety of teachers. I remember my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Sanders, loved frogs; although now, thirteen years later, I’m forced to question whether she loved frogs for herself or for her students. My AP Language teacher solidified my interest in writing, and you, my loyal readers, are the oh-so-lucky beneficiaries. Mostly, I’m thankful that all the teachers I’ve known have instilled in me the lesson that any sort of learning can be collaborative. It’s never a solitary process.

College professors carry a different sort of weight. It’s extremely easy to feel academically inferior through the undergraduate years, and professors have the power to mitigate or exacerbate that. I remember visiting a professor’s office hours some days after the class’s first prelim. I’d scored a 95 percent on the exam, to which my professor’s reaction was: “that’s very low compared to your classmates. Have you thought about dropping this class and retaking it next semester?” This came as a blow for obvious reasons, but it indicates to me that sometimes teachers themselves fail to see the influence that their words and opinions hold.

There have also been professors at Cornell who have invested so much additional time and energy into my personal development than I would ever deem necessary. They’ve been pivotal not only in shaping my undergraduate career, but also in helping me extend myself to outside industries. I imagine teaching is similar to parenting in some ways — the goal is usually identical: to educate — but there are a plethora of approaches. Tough love, laid back, unconditionally supportive, anywhere on the spectrum.

Reflecting on the differences between primary and higher education, the varied perceptions of K-12 teachers and university professors is understandable, yet discrepancies in the respect we offer the two is not. Often, the intricacies of certain subjects or levels of concepts seem to fuel inconsistency in the amount of value we place on the teacher. Yet, the elementary school teachers who taught us phonetics through worksheets and games are just as important as the collegiate professor who’s teaching us astrophysics. You can’t have one without the other.

Many of us don’t take issue with sites like Rate My Professor, where some teachers are praised but others are harshly criticized, but it has the potential to be extremely hurtful to those professors who do peruse it. To evaluate a class is reasonable and objective — course evaluation emails are sitting in my inbox this very moment — but to evaluate a teacher begs for subjectivity. This raises the bigger issue — are our responses to a class based on the assignments and workload, which are largely arbitrary and temporary measures, or the actual passion and command conveyed by the professor? Some of the reviews on Rate My Professor demonstrate a tilt towards the former. Often times, I err on the side of trivial factors myself, though it is an ongoing effort to recalibrate myself in favor of the subjects and lecturers themselves.

We derive significant chunks of personal security and peace of mind from the knowledge we possess, and so much of this is passed along from teachers. We couldn’t get there on our own. So, thank you to my teachers. Thanks for the easy tests that boost my ego and the impossible tests that show me how much I have to learn. Thanks for the advice and the reassurance, and thanks, most of all, for the undying faith, even when my GPA could afford to be shunned.

Priya Kankanhalli is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pkankanhalli@cornellsun.com. Matters of Fact appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.