The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Who Are You? Pitching to Your Students

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Tune into any major city’s local sports talk radio, and you will most likely hear a sentence or two about baseball.  The final few weeks of regular season baseball can be some of the most entertaining: who’s going to the post-season, which batter is chasing a title, and what pitcher is chasing a Cy Young award.

Teaching, like baseball, is a long and strategic game.  But if we think of the semester as a nine-inning game, where both sides get to pitch and both take swings at the ball, we see ourselves and our students.  As pitchers, we are offering up our fastballs, curveballs, sliders, our splitters (our knowledge) in order to position our ideas before our hitters, who might bunt, hit a single, double, or triple, or outright hit the ball into the Allegheny River. 

But for  a moment, let me take this one step further and ask you to imagine yourself as one of three pitchers: George Bradley (St. Louis Brown Stockings, 1876), Clayton Kershaw (LA Dodgers, 2008 – Present), or Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, 2006 – Present).

George Bradley: The Perfect Semester

Since Pittsburgh is a National League city, it’s worth mentioning George Washington Bradley.  Who?  In 1876, at the age of 24, Bradley finally caught a break and was signed by the St. Louis Brown Stockings.  Standing 5’ 10.5” tall George pitched the first complete game in the National League against the Hartford Dark Blues on July 15, 1876.  That year, Bradley would stand out as a most valuable player: he pitched 23 of the 24 perfect games for the Brown Stockings, had 16 shutouts (no hits allowed), and carried a 1.23 earned run average (ERA) for the remainder of the season.  In other words, Bradley was good, but he was only this good for one season.

I often think that this is the type of pressure we put on ourselves as lecturers.  We strive to have that perfect lecture, the perfect offering to our students, only to find that Bradley’s line is impossible to copy (his single season shutout record still stands).

Clayton Kershaw: The Consistent Performer

Six seasons in the league, and Kershaw is being compared to the greats in Dodger history: Drysdale, Koufax, Newcombe, Roe, and several others.  Kershaw alone has pitched the team to 18 victories so far this season, three shy of his 2011 win-count.  In this season, he holds five complete games and two shutouts.  While close to perfect, Kershaw shows his flaws, remains humble, and continues to go and give a great effort every five days.  Kershaw is near perfect and if you are a baseball fan, he is great to watch! 

Hearing Kershaw speak about his performances, one gets the impression that he is a realistic individual; I don’t think Kershaw goes to the mound every day confident that he’s going to meet or exceed Bradley’s outstanding 1876 season, a near impossibility.  What stands out and what we can learn from Kershaw is his consistent preparation, despite the positive and negative games he may have had before.

Jon Lester: The Every Day Balance

Admittedly, I am a die-hard Red Sox fan.  My New England roots gave me no other option; I certainly was not going to be a fan of the Evil Empire (the Yankees!).  That changed, of course, in 2004, 2007, and 2013, where suddenly being a Sox fan no longer elicited sympathy, especially from Pirates fans, but snide remarks eluding to the money spent, the question of steroids in some famous players, and the overall Sox pride we too often wear on our sleeves.

That said, one pitcher comes to mind as a phenom in his own right: Jon Lester.  But Lester is no Kershaw or Bradley (Lester: 114 wins, 66 losses, 3.60 ERA, 11 career complete games, and 4 shutouts over nine years).  What makes Lester a phenom is what has happened to him off the field.  Lester is a cancer survivor.  Between 2006 (his rookie season) and 2007, Lester underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, surrendering about one year of professional baseball for treatment and recovery.  Through the process, Lester believed he would come back stronger, and did he ever, helping the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series.

Lester reminds me of what we all contend with: off-the-field issues.  God-willing, the issue for you is not cancer, but the balancing act of children, family, research and publication, or exams and dissertations for graduate students.  So, when approaching your students, know that you are going to have those days where your teaching may be less than stellar.  Just like the ace pitchers of today’s game, know you’re going to have day to day struggles.  And that’s okay.

So, I conclude with four thoughts:

  1. Approach each day with the goal of showing your students ‘your best stuff,’ but acknowledge there will be those days when your fastball is operating at 70% efficiency.
  2. Be consistent with your day-to-day approach, your preparation, in your feedback to students, and most importantly, be honest when you have those difficult days.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Have a new curve-ball you want to try out?  Give it a go!  This is especially true when trying new active learning techniques, incorporating technology, etc.
  4. And lastly, during those days you struggle, note what was difficult and how you might change it the next time you teach the lecture and plan on how you can make the next class better.

Your objective, unlike these ace pitchers: get your students to take the pitch and run with it.  As much as we would hate to see the Pirates get overtaken by the mighty bat of Matt Holliday, our objective as teachers should be just that: let Matt go yard and take our knowledge for a run.

Author: Michael J. McGravey

Mike received his B.A. in Theology from Gannon University, Erie, PA in 2005. After graduating, he taught Religious Studies at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia. While in Philly, Mike earned his Master's in Theology and Religious Studies from Villanova University in 2008. In 2009, he came to Duquesne as a graduate student in Theology and also served as a teaching assistant in the department until the spring of 2013. During his time as a teaching assistant, Mike taught the core course, "Faith and Reason." Mike's theological work has included talks on Augustine of Hippo, Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the Principle of Subsidiarity and Pius XII, and Catholic Social Teaching and Healthcare. Additionally, he has co-presented on technology in the classroom ("Sandwich Your Student Learning with Tech") at the 2014 Mylan Pharmacy School Retreat (Oglebay Resort, Wheeling, WV). Mike continues work on his dissertation, a project focused on postmodern ecclesiology and Continental Philosophy, while balancing life as a father of an active boy and an inquisitive young daughter.

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