Students often identify enthusiasm—or being “passionate” about a subject—as being the distinguishing characteristic of a good professor. The correlation between an instructor’s enthusiasm and its effect on student engagement nearly forms an axiom: students become increasingly engaged with a course and its material to the degree that a faculty member is engaged and enthused by the subject matter.
The literary critic René Girard had a name for this phenomenon of admiring something that someone else admires, calling it mimetic or imitative desire: the object of desire is intriguing to others due to the very fact that it is being desired. As Girard says about the novels of Stendhal and the actions of his fictional characters, “the mediator [herself] desires the object, or could desire it: it is even this very desire, real or presumed, which makes this object infinitely desirable in the eyes of the subject. The mediation begets a second desire exactly the same as the mediator’s” (7).
Something of what Girard describes about literary works happens in the classroom as well, as Gregory Marshall has argued: “If the teacher exhibits an ethos of passion, commitment, deep interest, involvement, honesty, curiosity, excitement, and so on, then what the students are moved to imitate is not the skill or the idea directly, but the passion, commitment, excitement, and interest that clearly vivifies the life of the teacher” (77). Marshall goes on to call this dynamic an invitation, one that is extended between student and teacher: “The possibility of such added value to learning can never be conveyed by the skill or idea [being introduced] alone, but only by the ethos of the teacher who has already integrated those skills and ideas into his or her life and thus offers us as students, via appropriately vivid teacherly ethos…an existential invitation to, an existential reason for, learning” (77-8)
For faculty, enthusiasm derives from a sincere and profound interest in one’s area of research specialization. Enthusiasm for one’s subject cannot be feigned or counterfeited, yet even if an eagerness to teach does not come second nature to some, enthusiasm can nevertheless be cultivated and thereby made available for students. Jerry Farber has described passion as in integral part of developing a teaching “presence,” which involves summoning “an intense sense of purpose: a passion to teach, and, along with it, the belief that one has a great deal that is valuable to offer….” Honing a teaching presence, according to Farber, also entails “the most profound and creative intellectual engagement with the subject that one is capable of, and individual class sessions that are approached like the major events that they area,…planned with care, creativity, and pedagogical wisdom” (221).
An enthusiastic approach to teaching demands commitment and hard work, but it also stems from something immediately available to each faculty member: a particular interest. It is, consequently, important to remember that what you find especially interesting and worthwhile—when conveyed with enthusiasm and care—is likely to be found interesting and worthwhile by students.
Farber, Jerry. “Teaching and Presence.” Pedagogy. 8.2 (2008): 215-225.
Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1961.
Gregory, Marshall. “Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Teacherly Ethos.” Pedagogy. 1.1 (2001): 69-89.