On Friday, October 23, 2015, Medaille College awarded our academic and scholarship honorees at Honor’s Convocation.  At this event, Dr. Daniel Kotzin, Associate Professor and Division Head of Liberal Arts and Communication, was awarded with the Dr. Brian R. Shero Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award.  The speech that Dr. Kotzin gave at the event is published below:

Award Speech

By Daniel Kotzin

October 23, 2015

 

Thank you, President Macur. I also want to thank the Brian Shero Award Committee – it is truly an honor for me to be selected as the award recipient. I want to express my enormous gratitude to every faculty member in the Division of Liberal Arts and Communication as well. I might be the leader of this Division, but the Division’s faculty are such an amazing group of people who are so passionate about what they do that, for me, it is a great pleasure to work with them. In addition, I want to express my appreciation for the wonderful support staff at Medaille. It is the staff at Medaille who enable faculty and students to achieve excellence – and that needs to be acknowledged. I want to thank my students who are here today, too. My goal when I come into the classroom is to inspire you – but I can say that each of you inspire me – and that is the greatest gift a teacher can have. Finally, I want to thank my wife Chana and my son Noah for all their love and support. I would not be here if it were not for them.

When I first arrived at Medaille in the fall of 2006 and learned about the Brian Shero Award, it struck me as kind of odd that it is called the “The Brian Shero Award for Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership.” Teaching and leadership seemed to me to be separate categories. And after all, local colleges like Niagara University and Hilbert College offer teaching excellence awards. They don’t honor leadership. Going farther afield, to the beacon of the American system of higher education, even Harvard University offers the “Roselyn Abramson Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching”.  There is no reference to leadership. Has Medaille got it wrong? After all, what does teaching have to do with leadership?

I am going to argue today that Medaille has it right, and perhaps institutions like Harvard University should look to Medaille when they seek to recognize their faculty – teaching and leadership should not be thought of separately, as indeed they are interlinked. Can one be an effective teacher without being an effective leader? Equally, can one be an effective leader without being an effective teacher? More than that, effective teachers and leaders are also forever students, or what we label in today’s lingo “life-long learners”. 

Extending this idea, today I would like to also suggest something quite radical to the students being honored tonight – my radical idea is this, that the most successful students, the students here with us in this room, are successful because they have become, however unknowingly, teachers and leaders in their classes. They are students in name, but they have become teachers and leaders here at Medaille. And that is something truly powerful, worthy of distinguished honor.

And let me take my idea one step further – that there is a thread for this student-teacher-leader that I have presented to you. The thread is a pair of characteristics that these rare individuals being honored today have: courage and humility.

I want to share with you how I developed this idea. In her memoir about teaching literature in Iran, titled Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author Azar Nafisi describes how she created a self-selected group of students for a special literature course. This course would be unique – they would not meet in a classroom, they would meet in her home, in her living room, sipping tea and eating Persian desserts. In this dream class she created, Nafisi said that she chose her “best” students. But what qualities, what characteristics, did these students have? Were they “A” students? Were they the most committed students? Nafisi explains very clearly that these things were not important to her. Instead, she claimed that “my choice of these particular girls was the…courage I sensed in them.” I found that idea fascinating. In a scenario where the teacher gets to select the students, the teacher isn’t interested in their intelligence, their past performance, or their dedication. Rather, she is most interested in their character; she wants students who are courageous. What we learn through the course of this book is that the courage of the students was key to the success of the special class Azar Nafisi created in her living room. All of her students, in a variety of courageous ways, were truly honest with themselves, their classmates, and their teacher. And as a result, they could relate the books they read to their world, to themselves, in ways that became almost magical – through reading American and European fiction, they gained a deeper understanding of their world in Iran and their own personal place in that world.

How they were able to arrive at that deep understanding reflected a second characteristic these students had, a characteristic they shared with their teacher: humility. Humility. The characteristic of thinking that you are no better than someone else. It is a simple concept. But what does it look like? What is its power?

Throughout this book, Azar Nafisi reveals her humility, to us the readers, and to her students. Why is she having class in her living room? Because she resigned from her university over their restrictions on women. So she is radical for a woman in Iran, and in resigning over principle, she is encouraging her students to question the system they live in. In other words, she is doing more than teaching, she is also leading. But she doesn’t preach –she doesn’t tell them how to think. She is much too humble for that. All she does is ask for their interpretations of the novels they read – their interpretations, not hers. The result – they begin to see their world differently, not based on how someone tells them to see it, but through the perspective of literature, their eyes are opened. They can only reach this special place, though, because they are humble readers, willing and able to look at the world from different perspectives.       

As a historian, I have also noticed that some of the greatest leaders in history have this same mixture of courage and humility. I think of Abraham Lincoln. Of course Lincoln is best known for helping to steer the course during the Civil War, helping to rid America of slavery. Though we don’t often think of him this way, Lincoln was also a teacher. The best teachers give meaning to their subject – so did he. Lincoln taught the nation what the war meant. In the Gettysburg Address, he explained to his audience in his own humble way that the world would forget what he said, and only remember what the soldiers fought for, what he called a “new birth of freedom.” But an action Lincoln is less known for is his choice for cabinet, his closest advisors. Lincoln chose his political adversaries to be in his cabinet, men who he disagreed with passionately. This may appear to be a strange choice, but it is actually an act of leadership. Through this act of leadership he showed enormous courage as well, because he wanted men who would disagree with him, who would offer different perspectives. And he demonstrated tremendous humility by acknowledging that on issues relating to the running of a country during war-time, his political adversaries might offer very sound advice. In this respect, Lincoln was as much a student of his adversaries as he was a leader of them. The lesson from Lincoln is this: the best leaders are also simultaneously teachers and students. But in order for that to happen, they must have two important characteristics: courage and humility.

What does this look like in the Medaille classroom, though – this mixture of  courage and humility? Please allow me to share one more story. Last spring, after grades had been posted, I received an email from one of my students who wanted to know how she did on the final paper. I was at first surprised by her email. This student had earned an A in the course, and her A on the final paper seemed kind of obvious to me. After all, she had been in my office more than any other student in the class. That in itself is a sign of courage. Many students feel uncomfortable approaching their professors, apprehensive about any criticisms they may receive on their work. But the courageous ones, like the student I am describing, go in to their professors in spite of their fears. The result was that by doing this, she had received A’s on almost every assignment in the class. In her own quiet way, this student had also emerged as a leader in the class. Though she rarely spoke, when she did, everyone listened. There was a power in her soft-spoken manner – the power of an individual entirely focused on her own learning, an individual with a clear sense of purpose. In this way she emerged as a leader in the classroom, a model that her classmates looked to, for I noticed that this student had a subtle way of always steering the classroom discussion back to ideas. Her classmates consistently followed her lead. My email reply to her at the end of the semester, then, was simple – she had received a well-deserved A on this paper. But immediately, another email from this student appeared in my inbox. She didn’t want to know her grade, she wanted feedback on the last paper, she wanted to know what I thought, she wanted to discuss her ideas in her paper. I was floored. This was true humility.

Here’s the thing – this student is destined for success in whatever she chooses to do. Why? Because of her humility. Hers is an attitude of always being open to learning and improving. She doesn’t think she is smarter than others – nor does she care. She looks for constructive criticism – wants constructive criticism. She doesn’t get defensive when she receives it. Instead, she seeks constructive criticism, because she knows it is meant for only one thing – to help her improve. When I see this, when I see a student like this  – well then, in moments like that, I am truly humbled. For it is in moments like this, when I see the student-teacher-leader in front of me, that I can state with the utmost confidence that this individual is on a path to greatness.

          I don’t know if being honored with this award means that I have that mixture of courage and humility that I described Abraham Lincoln as having, and that I have observed in so many students like the one I just told you about. But I aspire to have those characteristics, because I have seen the power those characteristics have. It is not the power of an award. It is the power of being open. And it is my students who inspire me to want to do better for them. I have enormous gratitude for my students. I am truly in awe of what they are capable of doing. They inspire me every day. They make me always strive to improve. I hope to have their courage, and their humility.…….Thank you.

 

 

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