March 5th, 2008

Searching for Authentic Enthusiasm


Robert Tauber and Cathy Mester say in their book, Acting Lessons for Teachers, that if you do an ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) search on the word “enthusiasm” and combine it with “teaching” 716,000 citations come up. I didn’t try it so I can’t verify the claim, but as they note that’s a “staggering” number of citations that attests to the importance of enthusiasm in teaching.

I still choke a bit over the word. It’s so at odds with what academics are supposed to be—objective, rationale, detached. Whatever it is we study can’t be studied unless we keep our distance and our emotions in check. But then we’re supposed to sally forth to class full of excitement, energy, and wearing our love of the field on our sleeve. Passion is permitted in the classroom.

I also choke because enthusiasm can be such a caricature—that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, perky, smiling, and positive-to-the-point-of-nausea person. I’m seeing the plastic smile of that flight attendant who is paid to welcome me on board. This is enthusiasm contrived, carefully constructed, and put on—like makeup—it’s a cover up.

I’m not doubting the power of enthusiasm to motivate learning. I’m struggling with how to wear it so that it’s authentic and looks like it fits. And I wonder what you do when it wears out and you no longer have any to put on. Passion for the bedrock basics in any discipline wears thin after being worn in class for years. Can passion for the process be summoned then? Is it more like the good marriage where after years the enthusiasm changes to commitment, a firm holding on to something that matters very much, where the passion is less on the outside and more on the inside?

–Maryellen Weimer