When Professor Michel “Mich” Kabay joined the faculty of Norwich University’s Computer Security and Information Assurance (CSIA) program in the weeks before September 11, 2001, he was already a world-renowned expert in network and computer security. The self-professed enemy to hackers also proved to be a gifted teacher. Reflective of the thought and care he puts into his teaching, Kabay penned an essay, “On a Life of Teaching,” nearly a decade ago. We are delighted to share these excerpts.
On the Privilege of Teaching
Why do we professors willingly reduce our income to less than our graduating IA seniors earn in their first jobs? I think it’s a form of addiction. I think that a committed teacher gets such a rush seeing someone get it, after struggling with an idea or a technique, that many of us are willing to pay for the privilege of teaching. Most of us spend as much time and derive as much satisfaction from helping a D student become a C student as we do from watching an A student spread her wings and accomplish work worthy of publication. I have personally spoken to colleagues about seeing a student who walked into my office with his shoulders hunched, leave with a spring in his step because he feels better about himself for having understood something.
On Celebrating Mistakes
In over 50 years of teaching, I have never once knowingly embarrassed or humiliated a student in class or in private. On the contrary, I emphasize that making mistakes is perfectly normal. I make mistakes all the time, and announce them loudly so people will correct any misinterpretations I may have caused. When I ask questions in class, I encourage hesitant students who may have been abused by thoughtless or cruel teachers by saying, “Look—I don’t care if you make a mistake—I just want you to think and try to answer.” The students realize that I’m serious and they stop worrying about what they think of as sounding foolish. Many other teachers emphasize the same point to their students: I’ve heard colleagues say reassuringly, “It’s okay—there’s no such thing as a stupid question! Perhaps by asking your question you are helping others who haven’t thought of that particular point or who haven’t yet learned that it’s safe to ask for clarification.”
On the Value of Kindness
I explicitly insist on including values in everything I teach. My students learn about attention, critical thought, integrity, honesty, and kindness. They often hear comments about preparing for job interviews, for example: “If an interviewer uses a word you don’t know or don’t understand, say so right away. Never pretend. Never make stuff up. Anyone can learn, but a pretentious fool is a terrible employee.” I stress the importance of thinking about what we say and write: it might end up on the front page of a newspaper. And every cruel word of contempt or abuse is an opportunity lost for human kindness. I so much enjoy the friendships I have made professionally by responding courteously to requests for help over the years; it’s one of the reasons I won’t print a critical book review—I send my comments to the author but not to the publisher. I think that discussing such attitudes (and many others) is part of every teacher’s responsibility.
Devoted teachers help people learn. It’s as natural as breathing. I hope that some of you will enjoy taking those deep breaths someday.
(Norwich Record | Winter 2018)