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Why we teach

March 10, 2016

If you’ve ever taught, you know how rewarding it can be. The transformation can seem almost magical sometimes as you watch students stretch themselves intellectually, week after week, term by term. You can feel the progress and its accompanying struggle, as students eke out their gains, reading by reading, one problem set at a time. You listen as they experiment with different viewpoints, trying each one on for size. And you fight the urge to jump for joy when you see them nail it- a presentation, an essay, a moment of insight. This is undoubtedly one of the most gratifying parts of my job as an academic. It feels good when you know that you’ve taught them well- even when they can’t yet appreciate it for themselves.


Then there’s the icing on the cake: every once in a while, you receive an out-of-the-blue heartfelt thank you. An unexpected visit from a student you haven’t seen for years; gifts in your mailbox (like my favourite polkadot teapot); or a thank you note that comes months or years after the final lecture, long after the diplomas have been awarded. Recently, I received one of these thank yous and it brought me a lot of joy. After some thought, I asked my student if I could share her words.

Dear Christine,
I hope this finds you well.
I never got around to emailing you after the dissertation frenzy, but they say it’s better late than never.
First of all, I wanted to thank you for the dissertation support. I learned a lot and was pleased to notice that both you and Dr Patel mentioned my evident enthusiasm for the topic and that you appreciated my effort to critique the dominant Anglosaxon perspective- I found that feedback perhaps more important than the grade itself.
I also wanted to thank you for your class on state failure, and for the CSD [Conflict, Security, and Development] lectures. You always brought a ‘fresh’ perspective and attitude to class, and amongst the other lecturers, the fact that you had had extensive experience working in the field was evident and brought much appreciated pragmatism to our discussions.
Shortly after handing in my dissertation last summer I began interning at WFP [World Food Programme] HQ in Rome, where I have been since. Coincidentally, I applied at a time when they were setting up various civil-military projects. The fact that I had written a dissertation on this topic meant that I had background knowledge in a subject that both humanitarians and militaries generally prefer to avoid!
So far I have been loving my job at WFP- I’ve been working in the Emergency Response division and I have learned so much. I have so much respect for the work that is done and the hardworking people that have committed their lives to making our imperfect humanitarian system a little less imperfect.
There are days where, inevitably, I have flashbacks to the CSD/SF [state failure] discussions and moral dilemmas- to your class, to the dominant conclusion to many of our questions: ‘Well, it depends’. I also think a lot about our discussions and what many of you, as teachers, as well as us students were very aware of: that the reality on the ground is so different from what we read about in books. This is clear in my work  at WFP headquarters. As much as we try to design the best options for field conditions, the reality is that those who have to implement these plans will encounter obstacles that we, from the ivory tower perspective, will not be able to take into account.
Anyways, I think I’ve gone on for too long! I really do hope this finds you well and I just wanted to thank you for your class and your teaching. Oh, and you were right about sharing food in class- it really does bring people together.

I teach- we all teach- for moments like this. It’s a reminder to all of us teachers that our words and ideas continue to resonate in students’ minds months and years later…. long after they’ve left our classrooms.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2016 4:48 pm

    Dear Christine-yes this makes it all completely worthwhile. Well done and congratulations. Peace Kevin.

    • March 10, 2016 8:18 pm

      Thanks Kevin. I was also thinking of the email we received yesterday coming out of your seminar on peace in Northeast Asia. Yet another one of those moments to treasure. It’s been a good week for teaching.

  2. Norton, Anne-Lucie permalink
    March 14, 2016 4:34 pm

    Christine: thanks for sending this. We know what we do is important, valuable and necessary. It is gratifying to hear from students. Just today we heard from one of ours who’s said “Hi Anne-Lucie, many thanks for your kind words. Indeed, I’m based in Beirut and often travel around the region – I work as a Middle East correspondent for the Guardian covering Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, Iraq and the Gulf states. I can’t emphasize enough how profoundly useful the programme was in informing my coverage of the reason and understanding of the conflicts under way here, particularly the courses on COIN, international law and Middle East security. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have studied with professors like David Betz, Rachel Kerr and Ahron Bregman. Will send my testimonial later this evening.

    It really makes it all worthwhile – as you know. Best.


    • March 22, 2016 4:50 pm

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Having taught for over a decade now, I’m now watching my students reach positions of substantial influence. As they become more and more successful, I’m beginning to see more clearly how our role as teachers plays out in the long term. I didn’t appreciate this or foresee it when I began to teach, but now it is clear as day, and I feel it more viscerally, and it makes me really happy.

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