As a professor, I am constantly assessing how well my students grasp the concepts of my class; the primary way this is accomplished in academia is through testing. Sure we might not call it an exam but this is indeed what every assignment is. The whole system is based on achievement for my students. If you complete the assignment, do it well, and turn it in on time, you will get a good grade. But if you don’t complete the assignment, do it poorly, or turn it in late, then you will fail. It’s a simple rubric, and I like simple. Then there is the pressure on professors themselves as they are required to contribute to their fields through the publishing of their research in academic journals. Professors expect achievement from their students but they are also, in turn, expected to achieve a certain level of success in their given field outside of the classroom.
So when I came across Professor and Mathematician Francis Su’s recent speech on the use grace in teaching I came undone. Su’s speech (“The Lesson of Grace in Teaching”) was given in response to his acceptance of the 2013 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics. Admittedly, giving grace is not something that comes naturally to any of us and something we are constantly learning how to do as Su explains in his speech:
I have to learn this lesson over and over again.
You can have worthiness apart from your performance.
You can have dignity independent of achievements.
Your identity does not have to be rooted in accomplishments.
You can be loved for who you are, not for what you’ve done—somebody just has to show you grace.
Su then speaks of the difficulty of offering grace in the halls of academia, which resonates with my experience of the profession:
Now the academic world does not make it easy to learn this lesson. Especially when so much of academic success depends on achievement. Grades, PhD, publishing papers, getting tenure. And we are applauded for those achievements. We crave that applause! So it’s tempting to be drawn into this trap of needing my achievements to justify me.
The professor constructs four ways teachers can incorporate grace into their classroom: “Giving grace to our students, understanding grace in our teaching, communicating grace in the struggle and sharing grace in our weakness.” Su argues that these moments of grace as a professor are what he remembers most about his vocation and so do his students:
Just like my students, the moments I remember best from my own teaching are the grace-filled moments I have shared with my students and colleagues and former teachers, many of whom are here today. I want to thank them, because I didn’t deserve those blessed moments. But they gave them to me anyway.
While Su’s picture of grace in teaching is not perfectly executed or fully explained in this short speech, he is working toward a fuller understanding of grace in his vocation. As Christians, attempting to sync up the gospel of grace we hear on Sunday with the rest of our week, specifically at work, is a worthy goal. And if we are honest, we all struggle to do this, experiencing a disconnect between Sunday and Monday. Su is working toward living out his work life to embody Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God Alone) and this is something all of us should strive for in our work and in all we do, as we incorporate “grace-filled moments” in our day.