Voices of Experience: Richard Cornell

Photo of Richard Cornell Richard Cornell is a Professor Emeritus from the Department of Educational Research, Technology and Leadership. He continues to enroll in various workshops or courses so he may keep up with his area of instructional technology. He is now teaching an online class in International Issues for the University of Texas Telecampus Distance Learning System.

1. What are our greatest challenges as teachers?

Our greatest challenge is having the time and the resources to appropriately educate our students, given the plethora of other kinds of tasks that we are being asked to do such as serving on committees and publishing, all of which is important. However, the primary mission of the university, as I see it, involves the students directly in terms of interaction with them. So the challenge is how do you squeeze all of this into a work week or even a year?

2. What are some of your best strategies for building student confidence?

Let them know that I am vulnerable. That first and foremost, I am not an expert in anything. In many cases I turn to the students for information and ideas. I think establishing trust is a big one; that you do not ridicule students; that you don"t negatively impact them in front of other students. If a student respects you, it works both ways. If we don"t respect our students, we"ve lost it. That is a major strategy. There are a number of others; in fact our research team, the group of Ph.D. students that I worked with, came up with about 18 different strategies to assist students, and especially the ones I have been concerned with are international students. They come to us with such trepidation, especially if this is their first venture abroad. Also important are respecting student confidentiality, giving students advanced notice of pending assignments, and articulating expectations both of them and of myself. These are some that I consider to be critical because it all comes back to the quality of the transaction within a course. If the faculty member is not available and willingly so, then the student picks up on that very quickly.

3. What is the role of senior faculty in mentoring newer colleagues?

I think in the colleges we give lip service to this, and I have tried consistently over the years to serve in that role. I have seen where a mentor would be assigned, or a faculty member requested to mentor a particular individual. As life proceeds throughout the semester, both parties tend to become so involved in other aspects that the actual amount of mentoring varies accordingly. They get so involved in their own things that giving the new faculty the appropriate amount of time seems to be a question mark; that"s a reality that you can"t do much about. Everyone has their own schedule and tasks they have to accomplish. But if you"re really serious about mentoring someone, then you put time and effort into it and you give whatever it is, whenever it is, and don"t worry about watching the clock or other things. Life events come up; you just absolutely have to make time for that person.

4. How should professors develop as instructors over time?

Keep learning. In my particular area, that of technology, instructional design, and so forth, it"s frightening how the field advances and continues to advance with breakneck speed. If we are complacent and think, "I"ve learned all I am going to and that"s what I"ll use to teach with," that"s folly. Our fields, and I suspect this is true across the board in almost every endeavor academically, the content continues to change and we"ve got to be up to date with it. It"s like I want my personal physician to stay up to date with every possible element of his or her practice. I think we have the same responsibility to our students and to ourselves. These aren"t just nice words; this is reality. As we age, and I"m certainly in that aging bunch, the temptation is to chill out and say, "Okay, I am going to relax for the next few years and just slide through my DROP program and into retirement and not stay up with things""that"s an invitation to disaster. I make a point of attending as many national, local, and international conferences as I can. A couple of weeks ago, I was out there listening to the son of the Iraqi president, and I [was] there when Lech Walesa [was] speaking; these are critical pieces of staying connected to the world. If we don"t do that we"ve lost it, because these kids see what we are doing. They emulate in so many ways what we send to them, and if we send a message that we are tired and we are not going to do much more, they pick up on that. So life-long learning has got to be there. I will be learning until I croak. I spent six months learning Mandarin in Taipei. I went over there and rented an apartment and just stuck to it. Five days a week of ungodly hours of writing calligraphy and trying to get my mind to where I could remember words. It was a non-stop process, but that"s the kind of thing I felt I had to do because I recoup so many students from Asia and Taiwan. So I am over there a lot, two or three times a year sometimes. The thing that struck me the most when I was over there trying to better learn Mandarin: it dawned on me that what I am feeling now is what my Asian kids must feel when they come to Orlando. All those emotions I was experiencing"isolation, trepidation, fear of being made to look foolish, inability to remember content, not knowing the language, not knowing how to read Chinese"all of this struck me, and then it just dawned on me and I said, "wait a minute, let"s put this shoe on the other foot and think of how these kids must feel when they come here." They are going through all of that, and add to that the complexity of a brand new culture. It is 180 degrees different from everything they are accustomed to.

5. What would you do differently if starting over as a new professor today?

I am not sure I would do an awful lot different. I hope my philosophy would be as adamant and strengthened as possible in terms of having a focus on the students. The focus on what a professor is here to do varies. I watch a number of new faculty members arrive, and I see students who are alarmed at the layer upon layer upon layer of homework they bring to their new position. It"s natural in a way; they have to prove themselves. They are the new kids on the block, and they need to impress everybody with how smart they are, how industrious they are, and by God their students are going to be the same. Those are admirable qualities up to a point, but there is also the pragmatic side that says, "wait a minute, learn to just take it easy." Learn to understand your students and what their backgrounds are. If they"re not ready for the kinds of things you"re going to deliver, find that out first before you start throwing things at them, this assignment, that assignment, not one book, but four across a semester, write not one or two papers but one a week or something. With a new student or even a seasoned student who gets this new professor, they just bend over backwards to keep up with the work load. So the new professors need to be able to temper the kinds of assignments that they give and to target the level of discourse that they use with students at an appropriate level.


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