The Alumni Association is honoring 21 NC State professors with the 2013 Faculty Awards for their outstanding work in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. We talked (via email) with some of the recipients about their work and the keys to being a successful professor.
Today we’re visiting with Chris Anson, University Distinguished Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Anson, who is also director of the Campus Writing & Speaking Program, is one of two professors being recognized as Alumni Association Distinguished Graduate Professors.
What prompted you to become a professor? My fascination with writing — how it works, how it’s learned, how it varies across a vast array of disciplinary, professional, and social contexts — took me first into a master’s in creative writing and then into a doctoral program in the then-nascent field of writing studies. In both those programs, I also started teaching first-year students how to be stronger and more self-aware writers. Although I might have pursued a career in industry or publishing, it was these first experiences working closely with students that drew me into the professoriate, where I could continue my research on the nature and acquisition of writing while also contributing to the education of college students. Before long, I was working with graduate students as a mentor both in their research and in their own development as teachers.
What are the keys to being a successful teacher/professor? It’s tempting for us to focus our attention and energy inward, and to see ourselves and our knowledge as the key to students’ learning. Only when we start thinking about the students and what they bring into the classroom, and what they do to learn the complex and challenging skills and knowledge of our courses, do we begin to understand how to teach. This principle often gets translated into catchy phrases that characterize our role, such as “sage on the stage vs. guide by the side,” or “ref. vs. coach.” But these phrases do point to a deep ideological difference between assuming it’s completely up to the students to figure out how to learn the material, or putting in the energy to help them be successful learners, using a wide range of tools and methods. There’s deep value in being attentive to what best facilitates students’ learning, and to finding ways to get “windows” into their learning process (for example, through brief, low-stakes writing assignments designed more as a medium for learning than as a test of what’s already been learned).
What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? Engagement. That is, when students become completely engaged in the material of my course and when their intellectual growth becomes visible as a result. I get great satisfaction from carefully working out a process or a set of activities or an assignment that yields visible student engagement and deep thinking. With graduate students, this often involves thinking or working together as co-researchers. I also love to see the transformative results of students’ learning, when they say or demonstrate that our work has changed them and caused them to see something differently and more deeply. Finally, teaching isn’t something one learns early on and then enacts the same way for an entire career. The conditions of teaching, the students we teach, our disciplines, and the social contexts of learning all continue to evolve, which makes teaching a lifelong, intellectually engaging challenge.