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Nominate deserving professors

| Friday, March 31, 2017

I didn’t nominate a professor for a University award until my senior year at Notre Dame. I have had both stellar and less than stellar professors throughout the years, but I didn’t believe I had enough of a personal connection to a particular one to write a compelling nomination. Every year when the email urging me to nominate outstanding professors arrived, I considered it briefly before deleting it. Other students had more personal stories to share. As an engineer, it was hard to imagine I could make a compelling case for a professor whose attention was divided between eighty mechanical engineers.

Yet when the email rolled around this year, I realized it was my last chance to help a deserving professor be recognized. I decided I would nominate a professor no matter what I thought her or his chances were.

As I started writing the recommendation, I finally had the time to reflect on a particular professor’s pedagogy. Though the course had approximately 120 students, the professor engaged the class with poll questions and peer instruction. He knew the material so well that he didn’t bring notes or a book to class. Then again, he had written the book, which was likely the most understandable book on differential equations ever published. Though I kept few of my heavy, expensive textbooks from college, I couldn’t bear to part with his textbook or the notes I took in his class.

When the class averaged a failing grade on a midterm, he required us to study the material again and retake the test on our own time. We could look at the questions and then study exactly how to solve them. The only stipulation was that we could not use our textbook, notes, or another person while writing down our answers.

To ensure that we could all succeed, this professor stayed late at office hours on Friday. He managed a constant flux of graded and regraded exams. He made a lot of extra work for himself by making us retake the exam, but this work was worth it because we needed to learn the material. This professor wasn’t necessarily thanked for his work as some students resented spending extra time on challenging material. Yet this professor cared more about closing up gaps in our knowledge than his popularity.

I didn’t realize how much this professor did to promote student learning until I gave myself time to reflect on his pedagogy more than a year after the course ended. I only gave myself this time when I began to write the nomination. During the class, I was too busy striving to finish assignments and study for exams to appreciate how much the professor was facilitating my learning. A year and a half later, I realized how much of the course I still retained and how much it helped me in my subsequent endeavors. I was then able to appreciate the course and the professor without worrying about my grade.

Writing the nomination was not only good for my professor who may or may not win an award, but also for myself as a student. Reflecting on and persuading others that my professor is gifted and dedicated made me a more grateful and observant student. Years ago as a high school student, I focused far too much on winning awards myself. As a college student, it was a blessing to shift focus and recommend someone else for an accolade.

I experienced similar feelings of gratefulness for others when writing a peer recommendation for a friend for a service program. Unlike most cover letters or applications for jobs, scholarships, or programs of study, I was not asked to sell myself, but to highlight the talents and character of another. This prompt helped me escape the orbit of competitive mindsets that many students are stuck in in high school and college. I was able to realize that the success of another is as much a gift to me and the rest of the world as it is to them.

TED talks and self-help books recommend writing down five things you’re grateful for in a journal each day. After this experience, I suggest that you should also think about writing recommendations or nominations for your teachers or peers. It will help you notice and appreciate the work and talents of another. In a world governed by critical thinking, complimentary thinking will help you realize how you can be a better student, teacher and friend by emulating what you appreciate in another.

Ms. Thomassen is a senior studying mechanical engineering. She lives at the Château off campus, with four friends and more crêpes. She can be reached at ethomass@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Erin Thomassen

I am a freshman double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and French. PLS (aka the Notre Dame Book Club) is the history of ideas through literature, philosophy, math and science. It was the perfect major for me, because I couldn't possibly choose one subject and hurt the other subjects' feelings. French was also a natural pick, since I have been prancing around my house under the pretense of performing ballet for eighteen years. If someone asks me what I do in my free time, I will tell them that I run and read. What I actually do is eat cartons of strawberries and knit lumpy scarves. If you give me fresh fruit, we will be friends. If we become friends, I will knit you a scarf for Christmas. It may be lumpy, but it will be in your favorite color. And if enough people become my friend, lumpy scarves might just become a trend.

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