MIT Faculty Talks, a series of chats intended to build a closer relationship between students and faculty, launched last Wednesday, Sept. 16. The joint effort between the chancellor’s office and Lorna Gibson, a professor of materials science and engineering, opened with a presentation on “teaching, scholarship, and the imposter syndrome” by Arthur Bahr, a medieval literature professor.
Initially, Gibson started offering her faculty talk as an informal end-of-class lecture on how her family, interests, and values led her first to Cambridge, to industry, and then to MIT. Since then, other faculty have joined in, welcoming a chance to connect with their students. Gibson intends to create a space that encourages not so much the firehose-sponge dynamic between professors and students in lectures but rather a more balanced and humanistic one where students see other sides of the people that they spend so many hours with.
Bahr’s faculty talk, which will be available online at a later date, offered candid insight into both the struggles and joys of academic life. He compared his experiences as a figure skater and free skater in his youth to his current roles as teacher and researcher at MIT.
For Bahr, figure-skating is the art of drawing and tracing geometric figures onto ice, and just as it is difficult, laborious, and solitary — albeit rewarding at times — research in medieval literature is also difficult, laborious, and solitary. Free-skating, on the other hand, came naturally to Bahr, as did teaching.
At the age of twelve he spent his free time playing “school” with his younger sister. The miracles of teaching, in his opinion, are that one, everyone can be together in a greater flow of thought, and two, people’s lives may change for the better. However, it was difficult to reconcile his love for teaching with a job in an institution that values research more. “I felt like a cat person in a dog person world,” Bahr said.
Bahr, like many students, struggled then — and still struggles — with “imposter syndrome.” He hadn’t considered becoming a professor until later in life, and even then, he planned to teach at a small liberal arts school, not at MIT. When MIT accepted him, he felt simultaneously elated, undeserving of the title, and deeply uncomfortable with his role.
“It felt like I had won a figure skating competition,” Bahr said.”[I was] afraid that even though I got the job, [the judges] would realize [their mistake] and ask ‘how did you ever pass your first figure skating test?’”
Bahr said that the danger of the “imposter syndrome” is that people are upset at not being able to attain what they perceive as perfection. He combatted this negativity by being open and honest about how research was not his true calling, and that teaching was. By treating research as a job, he could separate the all-consuming desire to pursue research from his identity of a teacher.
He said he realized that identifying as a scholar doesn’t necessarily make one automatically smarter nor does identifying as a teacher automatically make one nobler. According to Bahr, good figure skaters sometimes made bad free skaters, and the worst free-skater could be a brilliant figure-skater.
Bahr said he found greater value in teaching because he could better communicate with his audience. In his experience, inspiring teachers created a lifelong love for learning. Later, he discovered that the satisfaction from teaching and doing research were even mutually dependent.
Since the 1980s, interest in competitive figure-skating has slowly faded away, according to Bahr. Fewer coaches will pass the art on to pupils. Yet, Bahr hopes that the techne (Latin for ‘craft’) of figure-skating will survive along with all the other technes that deep and specialized research develops. Since technology is a sum that is greater than its individual technes, all crafts should be preserved.
Bahr acknowledges that the professional disconnect and career disparity between professors and pupils intimidates students. He urged: “remember that they’re people — ask them questions, ask what was grad school like for you … professors need to be better at signaling that that’s a part of their job.” Gibson hopes that the MIT Faculty Talks will build that bridge.