As a College President, I actively promoted faculty intellectual engagement and scholarship in their academic disciplines. Academic freedom is at the core of college and university life. I believe that faculty should continuously engage in advancing their critical thought processes, especially for the discovery of new knowledge. My greatest existential awareness as an undergraduate philosophy major was that the truth regarding the transmission of knowledge for good teachers lies first in their capability to intellectually reason and challenge the minds of students.
The art of teaching clearly lies in the ability to effectively communicate. When I hire new faculty members, or consider applications for promotion in academic rank for existing faculty members, my highest priority is not an assessment of academic qualifications and professional experience – it is, clearly, do I believe that this individual is a great teacher in the classroom. Having an extremely intelligent professor that cannot clearly and effectively communicate, and challenge minds, is not providing a college education. Of course, I fundamentally believe that excellent academic qualifications and, if possible, real life professional experience are central to the professoriate, but those competencies must be leveraged through the ability to effectively transmit knowledge.
As an undergraduate and graduate professor, I would always have two primary goals for all my courses: 1) Make sure that students had a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter – both from a theoretical perspective and a practical assessment standard, and 2) Make sure that I am intellectually challenging students to think independently and thereby enhancing their reasoning capacities with respect to the creation and logical construction of new intellectual ideas.
I often quoted Aristotle in my classroom: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. I love challenging students with controversial ideas. Active participatory exchanges between students is fundamental to my pedagogical philosophy. And, I always tell students not to be afraid to ask any question — and intellectually challenge me. It is exciting, dynamic and fun. My other favorite quote that I relate to students comes from Albert Einstein: “A person that never made a mistake never tried anything new. Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”.
My academic specialties include Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure Law, Evidence, and Jurisprudence. I also have taught courses on Irish History and have spoken and debated issues with respect to the Northern Ireland peace process throughout the United States. In almost every course, I create a syllabus and class outline that includes objective sections along with a creative essay for the midterm and final examinations. Additionally, most of my courses require a research term paper which is separately evaluated on the following four standards: 1) Originality, 2) Creativity, 3) Accuracy, and 4) Research and Documentation. Student class participation is also a key metric for my evaluation of intellectual and practical understanding of the course.
I also believe very passionately that professors have an obligation to do everything reasonably within their power to make sure their students understand the material required in the course. That means working with students outside the formal classroom, providing help through the library and/or learning center, engaging with academic support staff such as retention counselors and academic advisors, and most of all, if possible, being a caring friend to students.
One of my most rewarding experiences is when a former student comes up to me in an unexpected place and says, “I remember you. You helped me to think independently and search for the truth”. I will take those moments into the hereafter.
John J. McGrath, Ph.D.