Magical transformation

The following is the address John McBratney gave after being presented with the award.

One of the odder aspects of winning this award is hearing the different names people give it. Several persons have referred to it as “The Distinguished Teacher Award.” I’ve had to remind them the really good teachers at John Carroll win the other faculty award: the Culicchia Teaching Award. Another person, in an inspired piece of malapropism, called it, “The Extinguished Faculty Award.” I suppose that’s the prize you get after this one, as a kind of academic last rites. But my favorite appellation is my mother’s: “The Top Doc Award.” For pure down-to-earth poetry, it’s hard to beat that title.

Fr. Niehoff congratulates John McBratney.

I’m immensely grateful to the many people who have helped me earn this award. I thank the team of faculty and students who put my nomination packet together. I thank my colleagues in the English Department, who have been a source of constant inspiration through the years. Bright, imaginative, and tirelessly committed to being the best teachers, scholars, and writers, they have helped me become the professional I am in incalculable ways. And because this award marks, in some sense, a lifetime achievement, I’d like to extend my gratitude to the families who have shaped me profoundly throughout my life: my late wife and her family, my wife Betsy and her family (some of whom are here), and my family, represented today by my daughter, Indra. (Unfortunately, my sister Peg and my parents, Betsy and Greer, who were en route from Massachusetts to attend the ceremony, were turned back today because of inclement weather.) I’d especially like to thank my parents, who have taught me key lessons in life: to seek my own road, to work with a steady determination, to find a vocation that pleases me and yet serves others, and never to get a swelled head, especially when you receive an award like this one.

The Distinguished Faculty Award offers the recipient a valuable opportunity: an occasion to reflect on one’s career as a teacher, scholar, and citizen of this university. Instead of looking at the whole of my time here, however, I’d like to examine a single moment—a kind of moment that recurs in all dimensions of our work here but whose nature is easiest to grasp from the standpoint of teaching. I’ve struggled to come up with a name for this instant. The best that I can do is to adapt a phrase from Mahayana Buddhism and speak, rather grandiloquently, of “the moment of magical transformation.” Let me try to convey what happens in this instant from a pedagogical viewpoint. In the English literature courses I teach, I like to ask my students, in a loosely Socratic manner, questions about the texts we read—questions that are difficult to answer, that often have more than one answer, and that sometimes leave the students more up in the air than settled about the matter at hand. The moment I speak of, the moment of magical transformation, occurs when I ask a particularly difficult question. Posing such a question is like dropping a small stone into a still pond. For several seconds, silence ripples through the classroom. For me, this can be a moment of dread. Perhaps the question is stupid or boring, pitched too low or too high. For the students, the moment can also be one of trepidation. “Will I stumble?” one thinks to himself. “Will I say something completely foolish?” another may ask herself. Sometimes it seems the whole class is riding on such an instant. And then a response comes and then another, and in the best of moments, there’s a change in the atmosphere that, though ordinary, is also mysterious. Whereas I previously had the initiative, now the students own it. Suddenly, their potential intellectual energy has turned kinetic.

A slice of celebration

What comes out of their mouths on these occasions is sometimes rough and halting, but it represents the stirrings of distinctive thought, thought that for each student emerges out of the particular constellation of upbringing, temperament, intellectual bent, and life experience that each brings to the classroom. This moment of magical transformation lies, I think, at the heart of a liberal arts education. If the education we offer is in fact liberal—that is, free and freeing—then in this instant the students and I experience a small but significant measure of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual liberation. We find ourselves engaged in a collective groping toward new truths—or old truths in new forms—an enterprise that represents an essential part of our lives as members of a liberal arts and Jesuit Catholic university, as citizens of a democracy, and as part of an extended human family.

Our ability to keep this moment alive—a capacity possible only in the face-to-face classroom— will largely determine the future health of our educational enterprise. Let a hundred other kinds of academic setting bloom—whether long-distance, online, hybrid, or virtual in yet some unimagined way—but without the live classroom as a staple of our students’ experience, our liberal education will wither. May we foster these moments of magical transformation as often as we can in our professional lives. Thank you.

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