I’d wager that if Michael Ofsowits knew that I was writing a blog post about him, he would be both amused and bemused by the gesture. The kind of instructor that writes this about asking stupid question might feel just a bit silly about being talked about in a setting like this; I know I do.
And yet ‘Professor Ofsowitz’ was and remains one of the most formative people in both my unyielding fascination with cognitive and social psychology (ask me to talk to about the fallibility of human cognition – I dare you), as well as my appreciation of thoughtful, welcoming, and challenging pedagogy. The classes that I’ve taken with him were not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. Indeed, he made it a point of education to explain that grading is not just a form of honest feedback, but also an honest prognosis. A less than ideal grade, therefore, should be considered a call for action and change, and while he would love nothing more than to send us home with a clean bill of health, he would be defying his ethical duties if he were to do so when the evidence speaks against it. It wasn’t the amount of material that made the class difficult, which was often less than most of my undergraduate classes, nor the material itself. Rather, the challenge came from the depth with which we were expected to engage with it. Writing assignments and answering test questions presented tasks that could not be done well with simple memorization of the content. We were expected to think about it, to synthesize it with previous information, and ultimately produce a novel thought that stems from our own understanding of the material.
The emphasis on depth in understanding, combined with expert delivery of the class’ content, made all difference in the world to me. I did the readings, submitted the work, and diligently prepared for exams, without wondering what exactly to study, or how to best prioritize the material in a way that maximizes my effort-to-grade ratio. I simply engaged with the content, did well in the class, and was allowed the space to fall in fascination with the material.
In the context of science education, the topic of authenticity comes up rather often (at least in my own teaching preparation program). We ask and discuss questions like “how can we teach science to kids in an authentic way?”, and often speak of things like offering content relevancy, and the facilitation of the kids’ own scientific fascination. And while I find these conversations about authenticity both relevant and meaningful, they are not what I first think of when I consider authenticity. To me, the idea of authenticity in teaching is foremost honestly. It is a setting of clear expectations of effort, and the welcoming of that effort. It is saying: “To get to where we need to get, these are the things that we need to accomplish. Some parts of this journey will require significant effort, but meeting that requirement will be rewarded not only in recognized success, but with inevitable, meaningful, and lasting understanding of how we got to where we’re going”. Ofsowitz’s teaching felt authentic to me because the promise was simple (“Engage with the material meaningfully, and you will do well”), and because at the end of it all it was thoroughly honored.