This weekend I saw a diagram with visual representations of teacher-centered instruction juxtaposed to graphics illustrating learner-centered approaches. I heard myself telling someone that I used to think of them as separate, and I still see value in understanding the differences between them.
I’ve been completely humbled in the past few months as I’ve taken on a new set of responsibilities, responsibilities for which I have essentially no background. It’s like being a first-year student again. I’ve got a “course” in insurance—not just health and life but also event, building, liability, workman’s comp, and data breach. There’s also accounting, banking, payroll, and taxes.
Perhaps my most challenging “course” has been finance. I’m now the staff person who supports our investment committee. My job is to attend meetings, be sure the agenda gets out in a timely manner, carry out trades, and oversee the various reporting responsibilities associated with being a signatory for the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. It all sounds relatively easy when I list it out here, but after six months, I’m still struggling. The meetings are like an advanced seminar I don’t belong in but that it’s now too late to drop.
All this has reminded me just how hard being a novice is. I’m encountering several kinds of new information every day. And it’s not just intellectually difficult. I wake up in the middle of the night, anxious about transferring a million dollars to purchase a new investment or worried that I’ll miss an important detail for an employee during the enrollment period. It’s like taking high-stakes tests all over again. And just like our students, I, of course, have access to fantastic tutors and advisors, but I’m not always comfortable using them. I worry that I’m taking up too much of their time or that I should solve problems on my own.
Recently, I’ve spent time reflecting on just what is making it all so overwhelming and exhausting. I’ve just started down this path, but here are a few early observations.
Taking on new professional roles has been a prodigious reminder of the variety of challenges, intellectual and otherwise, of being a novice. The above is but a partial list. Writing and reading it, I can’t help but hear the voices of past students. Students who came to my office for help but could only tell me, “I don’t understand anything.” Students who could rattle off perfect definitions but could not apply their knowledge. Students who came to say, “I have read the text multiple times; why didn’t I do well on the exam?” Students who would come to me after a minor mistake—say, pouring their lab product down the drain instead of the waste material—with the certainty they didn’t have what it took to be a scientist.
My hope in writing this is that you too will recognize the voices of your students and perhaps think about their conundrums with learning not from your perspective as an expert but from your experiences as a novice.
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.