Vanessa Domine on Abandoning Pre-Med and Learning from Ben Franklin

Noodle Expert Vanessa Domine tells us why she'd send an English-speaking American student to mainland China, how technology has shaped the educational landscape, and why it's important not to forget small words of kindness.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

If it could be for more than a year, it would be a tie between Mary (mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalene. But if I could pick a teacher for just one year, I would choose Ben Franklin (probably in 1771, when he began writing his autobiography). Although Franklin had his imperfections and his fair share of failures, I would learn from him writing, journalism, communication, physics, science, invention, hard work, higher education, thrift, music, politics, revolution, diplomacy, solidarity, and religious tolerance. I imagine that his magnetic persona, wit, and wisdom would shine through all of these subjects.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Ironically, the small piece of advice that has had a big impact on my life is exactly that: Through small and simple things, great things come to pass. For example, when a teacher knows a students name; or when the New Jersey driver behind me allows me to merge into her lane; or when my husband says "thank you" and "I love you." These are all small words and acts that lead to positive effects. Their converse or absence, however, can tear down and demoralize. I have noticed that for many, the Internet poses a major challenge in this regard. In my own conscientious attempt to harness the power of communication for good, I often fall short. But in the process, I have learned that no act of kindness, concern, or goodwill is ever wasted.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I would send an English-speaking student who hasn't traveled before to mainland China. Not only would the student be linguistically immersed in a completely different character system with diverse dialects, but the student would also experience a very different economy, culture, and form of government from those in the United States. These vast linguistic, cultural, and social differences have the power to rewire the human brain in interesting ways. The sheer peculiarity of the experience would also cultivate for this student a much deeper sense of empathy, compassion, and appreciation for the tens of millions of non-native English speakers that reside in the United States.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

One of my declared majors as an undergrad was pre-medicine. One semester, I was enrolled in a biochemistry course without having first taken its prerequisite (organic chemistry) and I was failing miserably. One day, I looked around the classroom and felt the entire experience to be excruciatingly dull. The same semester I was also enrolled in a public speaking course, and it was absolute bliss for me (perhaps less so for my classmates and professor). To me, the class was filled with interesting people talking about interesting things. And as the fifth of six children in my family, I relished the fact that I could speak for 10 minutes without interruption and the audience was required to pay attention — and even ask questions. Best of all, we learned through that course how to deliberate important issues. At the end of that semester, I changed my major for the fifth (and final) time to communication studies, and eventually earned master's and doctoral degrees in that area. The experience of failing biochemistry taught me that failure often presents opportunities for growth and change. And that success ultimately comes from playing to one's strengths rather than magnifying her weaknesses.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I studied communication in college (after failing biochemistry, as you'll recall) because I am fascinated by the linguistic construction of reality: Our language shapes who we are and who we want to be. I also grew up in Silicon Valley (the technological capital of the world) and paid close attention to the technological mediation of information as well as our social experiences. I also always admired schoolteachers (and worked as one for a short while). I ultimately arrived at the professional intersection of communication, technology, and education.

Now as a university professor that prepares teachers, I value the rigor, resilience, and passion required of educators — regardless of the technology. What I did not expect in 2015 was for technology in schools to be caught in a continuous ebb and flow of faddish ideas and consumer products. This has happened at the expense of the authentic and pedagogically-sound professional development of teachers. It is an uphill battle for educators to focus on the actual learning process amidst the chaos of technology-based distractions (including standardized testing). Still, I am hopeful due to the fact that learning is a phenomenon that cannot be contained or limited by space, time, or even technology.

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