At Convocation, Sullivan Celebrates Old-School Student-Teacher Interactions

November 05, 2010

November 5, 2010 — As the University of Virginia honored some of its best students during Friday's Fall Convocation, President Teresa A. Sullivan took the occasion of her first convocation to discuss what makes for great teaching and great learning.

Also at the ceremony, held in the John Paul Jones Arena, the University honored two long-time faculty members, John L. Colley Jr. and Dr. Richard L. Guerrant, with the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor given to members of the University community.

Declaring that "the teacher-student relationship is at the heart of the University," Sullivan made a strong defense of personal interchange between students and faculty members in an era of "online universities, distance education, video conferencing, webinars and technology-enhanced classrooms.

"New technologies will come and go," she said. "Today's 'state-of-the-art' will one day be obsolete. Theories of pedagogy will fall in and out of fashion. What will remain is the essential thing: the eager student working under the careful guidance of a dedicated teacher."

Sullivan acknowledged that technology is playing an increasing role in the modern delivery of knowledge, at U.Va. and throughout higher education. "All of our schools have programs that make effective use of new and emerging technologies. That work will continue, and it will continue to get more sophisticated," she said.

But the traditional model of face-to-face interaction between motivated students and dedicated teachers remains at the heart of U.Va.'s mission, she said.

When a 17-year-old Thomas Jefferson arrived to study at the College of William & Mary, he had one professor: William Small, a Scot who schooled the future Founding Father in science, mathematics and the writings of Enlightenment thinkers. Later, Jefferson wrote that Small's teaching "probably fixed the destinies in my life."

Sullivan noted that, later, Jefferson's design for the Academical Village hearkened back to his relationship with Small. His plans intentionally fostered close interactions between students and teachers, by interspersing student rooms between faculty pavilions.

"It's fair to say that no other university in America, in its physical design, so perfectly embodies the principles on which it was founded and the values that permeate every facet of student and faculty life," she said. "No other university is built to foster the student-teacher relationship the way this university is built to do so."

Sullivan also offered her definitions of what makes a great teacher and a great student.

"A great teacher is able to capture our imaginations, spark our interest, and push us a little farther than we think we are able to go intellectually," she said. "Great teachers pose interesting, sometimes provocative questions; they encourage creative thinking. They don't ridicule our mistakes, but offer constructive guidance that leads us to clear thinking."

And great students, she said, "are enthusiastic learners, and their enthusiasm is infectious – they infect their classmates and their teachers with it. Great students are insatiably curious. They're open-minded and receptive to new ideas and new ways of thinking. They study a broad range of topics. They search for new knowledge in every corner of the University curriculum as if searching for hidden treasures in a big house."

"Together," Sullivan concluded, "the great student and the great teacher are a formidable team."

The 430 third-year U.Va. students receiving Intermediate Honors on Friday – who rank in the top 20 percent of their class after the first two years at the University while taking a full academic load – were sent two invitations for the convocation: one for themselves and their families, and one they were asked to give to a faculty member who had made significant contributions to their academic lives.

"If everything worked out the way you planned, that faculty member may have marched with you in today's procession, and may be sitting beside you right now," Sullivan said.

Fittingly, great teachers – recipients of All-University teaching awards, announced earlier this year – were also recognized.