The Spirit of Notre Dame is transformative for professors and students alike, professor of political science James McAdams said Tuesday.
McAdams, who has served as the director of the Nanovic Institute since 2002, delivered the third installment of student government’s Last Lecture series.
“Being at Notre Dame gives you perspective not just as a student, but for me as a teacher,” McAdams said.
Prior to coming to Notre Dame in 1992, McAdams taught at Princeton University. The news media frequently consulted him as an Eastern European expert during the collapse of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. His television presence during this period allowed his ego to grow too large, McAdams said.
When the network television stations no longer needed an East Germany expert, McAdams said he “waited for that phone to ring and it never rang again.”
“Inside, I waited for that massive recognition of my bountiful wisdom and it didn’t happen again,” he said.
McAdams said Notre Dame helped him to regain perspective and become a better teacher.
“I began to recognize that Notre Dame is different,” McAdams said. “Notre Dame cast a magical spell on me.”
He said he has focused on “bringing my own humanity to my students” since beginning to teach at Notre Dame.
“I began looking at my students and recognizing in them myself,” he said.
He said he began to see his students as “part of this common humanity,” and as people who shared in his “curiosity for the way we live our lives and think about what our callings are.”
McAdams said a teaching method that is based on sharing humanity with students requires courage.
“When you’re a teacher, you’re at risk all of the time,” he said. “For all your teachers at Notre Dame — all your real teachers at Notre Dame — every act of teaching is an act of risk and sacrifice.”
“It’s about getting out there on the stage and making yourself very vulnerable,” he said. “If I have the courage to get out amongst all you, then I can teach.”
McAdams said part of his credibility as a teacher comes from when he can admit he is wrong.
“I realized that when I talk about being wrong, in a way, I think my students get more out of that,” he said.
Notre Dame, unlike secular institutions, allows McAdams to discuss his religious faith in the classroom, he said.
“It really isn’t a problem at Notre Dame to say ‘I believe in God and these are my struggles with my belief,'” he said. “It turned out that it was natural to the point of being obligatory, just like it’s important to be honest about your mistakes and your shortcomings.”
Talking about his faith and mistakes helps McAdams fulfill his ultimate goal as a teacher, he said.
“I see it as my obligation to figure out ways to motivate you to understand the complexity of human existence through Notre Dame and your own faith, if you’re wrestling with that,” he said.
McAdams is currently working on a new book, “The Rise and Fall of World Communism.” He continues to travel regularly, and discussed his recent trips to Belarus and Vietnam.