Coming across an accomplished yet humble professor at Harvard is like finding a secret treasure. Which means locating a professor who trades his permanent tenured employment in for a contract position is even more rare. But for Jeffrey Seglin, the art of teaching should always be more important than the title.
“It was not a linear path, ” Seglin said with a nostalgic smile from inside his Harvard office.
His own career path started with his first passion, writing, and a little discovery from a teacher. When Seglin was in the fourth grade, his teacher realized his affinity for words and subsequently encouraged him to start an elementary school newspaper with a group of other students. Seglin was hooked, and ever since writing has manifested his career.
“Writing is a very revealing, personal kind of thing. It’s a challenge,” he said.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Bethany College in West Virginia, he continued his education with a Masters Degree in theology from The Divinity School at Harvard University.
After several internships and workshops with prestigious publishing houses, the first professional job Seglin held out of college was as an editor for the Boston Publishing Company. In 1984, Seglin’s freelance writing talents were displayed on the pages of Inc. Magazine -- a print publication for entrepreneurs and business owners. It took Seglin just five years to climb all the way to the top of the ladder, becoming the executive editor of Inc.
During his time at the Inc. helm, Seglin molded younger staff writers and taught them how to improve articles and challenge themselves. His first experiences as an educator were successful, but after 10 years with the magazine Seglin decided he needed a change and applied to Emerson College.
He was accepted into the academic world and was hired as an assistant professor in the fall of 1999. At Emerson, Seglin taught writing and publishing courses to juniors and seniors, who opened his eyes regarding creative expression.
“All of my students were amazingly creative, accomplished, and confident,” Seglin said.
Even with his extensive background knowledge, nothing could’ve prepared Seglin for his first day of teaching. “You know the expression in a cold sweat?” he asks, indicating his first-time jitters. “It was the most miserable class I have ever taught. I prepared my notes for three hours of class and had no material left after 20 minutes.”
Seglin learned about preparation and pacing the hard way. Whether or not a college professor has under-prepared or over-prepared, his advice is to take cues from the students' concentration, “It’s not that the students decide what needs to be taught, its that they are engaged in a certain way and I think figuring how to engage them is where a lot of time should be spent.”
Still, Seglin said the biggest challenges for a professor are educating and learning along with the students. “For me it’s about teaching. My feeling is the most successful way to do that is to figure out what the students want to learn and how they learn, as opposed to going in with the idea of “this is what I know and I have to tell you.”
No matter how well practiced he is, Seglin admits that he still gets anxious and nauseous about every class. “When I teach, I sometimes feel like I am performing an art. I prepare myself at night and then I work myself up all morning. But now I find there isn’t enough time in one three-hour class!, ” he says with a chuckle.
After six years, Emerson evaluated Seglin’s publications, involvement as the editor of an on-campus magazine, and his overall teaching effectiveness. The college granted him tenure and promoted Seglin to associate professor. A short time later he became the director of the graduate program in publishing and writing.
The tenure system was developed by colleges to protect the faculty’s freedom of academic expression. In the case that a professor writes something controversial or something the administration doesn’t agree with, it is virtually impossible to fire him under tenure.
One day, a colleague saw an opening at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and recommended him for the position. Although the Harvard name is prestigious, jumping ship meant willingly entering into a fair amount of uncertainty and leaving the comfy confines of Emerson College's tenure position. But that's precisely what Seglin did when he accepted a contract position at Harvard last April. Seglin is currently a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the director of the Communications program in the Shorenstein Center.
“Its very hard for people to understand why I would ever give tenure up, which is what I did to come to Harvard,” says Seglin explaining his decision. “But I didn’t come out of an academic world before that, I came out of a world where if I didn’t do my job I would get fired and I prefer that world.”
Now, Seglin teaches only graduate students, most of them already established professionals, seeking law and business degrees to advance their vocations. Seglin understands that no matter what their maturity level, background, or training, students all feel the same: “The same strengths, insecurities, and challenges that my students at Emerson had are shared by my Harvard students.”
"He's one of the kindest people I've known and one of the funniest," says associate professor Jerry Lanson, who team-taught professional ethics with Seglin for two years at Emerson. "He reads every paper carefully and agonizes over what he writes. Jeff may never have won Emerson's teaching award. But I did and he's a better teacher than I am. No question. He's had at least one semester in which every student gave just about a perfect rating."
Becoming a college professor is not a direct route for everyone and in many ways, finding the school and position that suits you is much like finding that secret treasure. Jeffrey Seglin has experienced life from an undergrad to a graduate student, as an entry-level writer to the executive editor, and as an assistant professor to a director.
As Professor Seglin teaches us, it all starts with a passion.
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