Thursday, October 8, 2015

Award Nomination Brings Consternation, Introspection

(From the October 8, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I was recently nominated for an award. This brought me one minute of joy and several weeks of dismay and anxiety.

Awards are nice. They can make a person feel good, proud, validated, and appreciated. But they can also cause grief.

In my case, a colleague nominated me for something called University Outstanding Teacher Award. As I said at the outset, my initial reaction was one of joy. What a high honor this would be. But then the anxiety set in.

I looked at the information about the award, including the criteria for winning it. Did I really possess what those flowery adjectives described? Momentary pride sank into swells of self-doubt. Surely others are more worthy.

Then I looked at what was expected of me as a nominee. I had to gather letters from current and former students and several colleagues. I had to gather example syllabi, assignments and exams that would be representative of my outstanding teaching. I had to write a statement including my pedagogical philosophy and reflections on my years of teaching. I looked from the award nomination form to my calendar, and my to-do list. I wanted to strangle the colleague who nominated me. Really, with everything I have going on, and now you drop this on my plate?

I felt like the poor guy in Japan who hits a hole-in-one on a golf course. Initial jubilation, and then the gut-hollowing reminder that the culture requires significant gifts for everyone you’ve ever golfed with. They even have hole-in-one insurance over there.

But I complied. I took the nomination seriously and began to assemble what I needed to put forward to the deans office, who will forward it to a committee who will decide the winner. Part of this has to do with the fact that my colleagues think it would be good for our “unit” on campus. We need, they argued, more of our communications faculty to win these campus awards. Why should chemistry or nursing get the attention?

Ah, so I am to represent my academic unit to aid in our on-campus branding. I felt less like an esteemed colleague than a sacrificial lamb. But, paradoxically, I humbled myself and set out to achieve the accolade.

It took me about 6-8 hours to assemble all that was needed to be considered for the award, something that turned out to be 58 pages of evidence of my excellence, not counting several hundred more pages of student evaluations of the past two years for every class I have taught. Having done so, I felt less daunted and more encouraged.

I review the evaluations after each semester, but reading them again as I assembled them reminded me that my teaching is reaching. Students express such positive appreciation for learning. The letter from the current student struck me—is that what she thinks, over there in the second row from the right, the fourth seat back? She intentionally took me for five classes because I hold the bar high? And the recent alumnus with his letter on fancy corporate letterhead. I had no idea that the legal brief assignment was the most challenging in his entire college career and one he still thinks about fondly even today. My faculty colleagues, they really regard me as  someone with classroom talent and not just a nice co-worker?

Even the lady in the campus copy shop offered a vote of approval. “Oh, you’re Tim Penning?” she asked with a smile. “I hear a lot about you from your students when they come here to bind the big assignments you give them. They love your classes.”

Forget the dean, I won the support of the copy shop clerk.

At this point the award is out of my hands. But the nomination process put a lot in my head. I am humbled, and grateful. If I don’t win the award, I will really be OK without a plaque, an announcement at a campus event, or any other recognition. I’ll have the reward of knowing that my hard work is worthwhile.

And if I do win? I’m not sure what I’ll do. I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I know I won’t buy gifts for everyone I’ve ever taught with.