John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Blog: The Art of Complimenting

January 29, 2010John N. GardnerInsights0

As a college professor of four decades I have attended my share of “faculty development” activities. And I have always agreed (rather than being offended by) with the notion that we do need to be “developed,” and continually so. I was not “born” a college teacher; I was “made” one, and largely by the professional development, support, encouragement and innovation of my employer: the University of South Carolina.

But in all the “faculty development” workshops that I ever participated in, led myself, or have even heard about, I don’t recall one on the topic of “the Art of Complimenting.” I think it is an art. And I think we need it (we faculty, because many of us are not gifted in this art, and because our students need it both for affirmation and motivation).

This blog is prompted by fact that this past weekend I was in a conference call with three other people, one of whom a woman who has known and worked with me on the national level for almost a decade. She made a sincere comment that I was “charming” but in the context of the subject we were talking about, I needed to be more than that! Agreed.

I think what she was probably referring to is that I love to compliment others. And I have worked and practiced at it for years. I enjoy discovering peoples’ qualities that cry out to me for a compliment. I can tell by their reactions that many people must not be complimented often or enough. I found this particularly to be true with my students. Instead of being in an environment where they were affirmed for what they knew and did, and could do, they were constantly being reminded by powerful people of all they didn’t know and couldn’t do, at least not yet.

My own self reflection on this “art” has led me to conclude that I really started thinking seriously about this as a part of my own personal intellectual quest for “the truth.” It was in my junior year at Marietta College that I was taking a political philosophy course from R.S. Hill who had us reading Plato’s Republic, one of the truly most influential books I have ever read.

I learned from Plato’s rendering of Socrates pedagogy for discovering the truth, that you have to interact with other people and discover in each their “half truths”; that there is something of worth, knowledge and dignity in virtually everyone else. And once you find those half truths, surely there is something there worth complimenting. That became intentionally one of my most characteristic teaching pedagogies.

Another lesson I learned from The Republic, was that the most important question I could be asking as a student, and lifelong learner and journey man through life is: “what is justice?”—the subject for another blog.

I think I should try to write something more extensive on the Art of Complimenting and hope I will.

-John N. Gardner

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