The Joy of Teaching, or
I Want to Run Away and Be a Rock Star
Weber State University Nye/Cortez Banquet
17 April 2003
I am tremendously honored to have the opportunity to be here to give a keynote address. No one has ever asked me to give a keynote address before. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that these people — the ones who have never asked me to give the keynote address — have seen me in front of a classroom. I pace. I make up stories. I make up new words. I make random free associations and very screwball analogies. In other words, I am exactly the wrong kind of person to be giving a keynote address. I actually think that there is something about this whole affair that resembles a practical joke. “Let’s put Johnston behind a podium and make him read something for 15 minutes and see what happens.” I think that there is some kind of an office pool in which people are betting on how long I’m going to last before I start making up new words or pacing back and forth.
My goal is to stand still for the entirety of this speech.
Despite my wondering what I’m doing here and exactly how to do this, I can’t possibly describe how much it means to me to have been given the Nye-Cortez teaching award last year — the event that led up to me being here today. Many of my mentors and role models and advisors and confidants are faculty who have received this award before me. To be among them, and to be honored for something I truly love to do, is incredibly meaningful to me.
I’ve thought a lot about what I should talk about. I could speak at great lengths about my personal annoyance with people who leave their shopping carts stranded in the middle of parking lots and how this phenomenon is directly tied to the downfall of civilization. I had seriously considered talking about the nature of knowledge and knowing, the fine line between mysticism and realism, but that would be a shameless plug for a course that will be taught next spring by myself and Carl Porter. (In case you’re wondering, that course will be taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 to 12:50, and is listed in your registration guide as Honors 3900.) I also thought that I could talk at great lengths about specific facets of the universe and how the universe is not (but could be) and how this would create a much different world around us. But, I’ll save that for another keynote address.
I finally realized that what I should talk about is exactly what got me in this whole keynote address mess in the first place: Teaching. In particular, I want to talk about what is so wonderful and joyful and celebratory about teaching and why you — those of you who are not currently teachers — should be so. I should also advocate teaching by pointing out that it is what keeps me from running away and trying to become a rock star.
Certainly, running away to become a rock star or even to work a piano bar is a misguided ambition; but it’s still a real desire that reaches up and grabs hold of me on a walk to work or while I sit alone at a piano or sometimes — actually quite often — while grading. I’ve been grading a lot this week. If I ever get caught in the middle of a week in which I’m doing nothing but grading and going to long committee meetings, then you may just find me sitting at the piano of some smoke filled bar downtown. But, so far, it hasn’t come to this.
What saves us all from this possibility is that fact that most of my time is in one way or another dedicated to teaching. I do go to committee meetings and I do have to grade, but in between all of that stuff I get to go to class. And in class I get to do a very bizarre thing — all funded with state tax and tuition monies. I think really hard, I try to understand something so completely that I can re-create a story that translates and explains this understanding to someone else. And then I get to tell or show or do that particular story by playing with chalk and pacing back and forth and making up words and playing with toys and talking to students and asking questions and making the students play with the toys. And then, mentally exhausted, I go back to my office and I think some more about explaining something else so that I can go back to class and tell a new story.
Teaching is a fascinating challenge because it really isn’t about teaching at all. It’s about learning — there’s another person involved in all of this. If you ever watch Peter Pan you get to see this issue highlighted when Peter tries to teach Wendy and her brothers to fly. Flying is so completely second nature to Peter that describing the process is impossible for him. Fortunately there’s some pixie dust that fixes everything. In the teaching and learning of physics, we’re always looking for this pixie dust. Teaching becomes the art in which you try to recreate Tinkerbell. I love this process, this continual invention of a means toward understanding.
I always love who I am when I am teaching. There are only a few places that “me” comes out — the “me” I write in quotation marks for some reason. Most people don’t really see that “me”, although there are three people who can generally count on “me,” and they have to see me not only at my best, but at my very worst. Karyn, Anna, and Grace see me as a husband and a father — my very most favorite people to be — but they also have to see the “me” that yells at the dog, the me that finishes the orange juice without taking a new can of concentrate out of the freezer, the me that loses patience, and the me that gets tired. They see the “me” that sometimes wants to run away and be a rock star.
There is another expression of “me”, though. I’m actually not really sure who on Earth this person is, but he comes out in the classroom. He paces. He yells. He jumps on tables and swings buckets of water over his head. I really don’t know where he comes from, but I love that person. He is self confident and he uses big words — some of them made up and some of them real — and he is excited and sometimes people laugh at his jokes. Most of all, he gets to make stories that attempt to represent the natural world. He gets to look for that elusive pixie dust.
In addition to the things that I get to do and the person that I get to be, I work within a pretty amazing place. As I was trying to write this, an astronomer knocked on the door of another astronomer just down the hall from me. “I have an astronomy question for you,” one says. And then they talk about astronomy and all that they don’t know about astronomy. I get to sit and eavesdrop on these kinds of conversations on a daily basis, and I get to go down the hall myself and ask things like, “So, just how flat is the universe really?” And in response I’m told, “It’s really really really flat,” and then I can talk and think for a great amount of time about how incredibly unlikely that is and how lucky that is and then I get to think about how I’m going to explain this to my class tomorrow.
Perhaps the greatest influences in my life that have driven me to teach have been my own teachers, both in and out of classrooms. These teachers have been vitally important to me; and these are the people who are the model for everything that I want to be as a teacher.
- Mrs. Hinds, my 3rd grade teacher, taught me that I should pay attention.
- My parents showed me what it looks like for two people to be married for a long time.
- Mr. Kenyon showed me how to factor. He died last year after falling from a tree. I always think of him when I’m factoring, and sometimes I hear his voice when the chalk is in my hand and I’m maneuvering about an algebraic expression — sometimes his voice seems to come out of my mouth.
- Edgar Reynolds taught Acting I, a class that I took my last semester in college, parallel with my physics thesis and Quantum Mechanics. Acting was arguably the best class I ever took. I got to learn how to be someone else, which, depending on how you yourself is doing on a particular day, is a nice ability to have.
- Michael Broide showed me how to be a scientist. He did this by leaving me alone and letting me figure it all out for myself. He shook my hand and handed me a book by Richard Feynman as I walked down the graduation processional.
- John Steinbeck taught me that simple words can be used to form elegant images.
- Grace has taught me something about self-reliance: Whenever the going gets rough, there is always her right thumb, right there on her right hand, that can be inserted in her mouth, and everything gets better. Anna has taught me that imaginary friends are good and entertaining to have around. (As a physicist, having any friends, imaginary or real, is a nice thing.) Both of our children have shown me how, and more importantly when, to dance. You can dance whenever you want, and much to the chagrin of my students, I sometimes dance in class.
- Dale Bryner taught me to wonder what the convective zone of the Sun sounds like.
- Sherry Southerland made me grow up into an academic, and she showed me that something I had stirring around in my head might be important to a bigger community. She may have known that before I did, so it was good that she was around to not only drain entire red markers on my dissertation drafts, but to make occasional comments like, “ooh, very nice.”
- Billy Joel taught me that the short, ugly guy can still make women scream if he can play piano.
- The greatest teacher I have ever known is Karyn. I have seen her engage 8th graders and make them think and make them excited about Shakespeare. I never knew that this was possible. Her current classroom is composed of two students, and the classroom is filled with wisdom, such as “We wear clothes when we have visitors” and “We don’t share with others anything that drips from our body.” I can’t imagine more learningful and profound words. Most importantly, she has taught me a great deal about how to listen, how to express myself, and how to be a dad.
All of my great teachers share this commonality: They have all made me want to learn more and they have all instilled a great sense of wonder in me. A teacher can help you form a lens through which to view the world and can give you the tools to change that same world. A teacher gets to witness learning, confusions, comprehension, frustration, change, passion, awareness — the very things that seem to be at the core of our humanity. In my life, my teachers have made me want to be them — they have made the teaching process so alive that I wanted to teach, and I think that the goal for me is to become that teacher that they collectively typify for me. I want to be some conglomerate of Mr. Marshall and my daughters and Michael Broide and Mr. Kenyon and Karyn Johnston and Brad Carroll. I don’t teach because I want to give something back or because I have some altruistic goal of making the world a better place; I teach because it makes me feel alive. It is the person that I, completely selfishly, want to be.
So, I think that you all should want to teach as well.
When someone asks me what I “do,” I tell them, “I teach physics.” Karyn always tries to correct me on this. She tells me that I should say that “I’m a physics professor at Weber State University.” But this isn’t what I do — and it certainly isn’t who I am. I teach physics. That is the “me” that I am quite privileged and delighted to be.