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Dr. Alison Barton

Dr. Alison Barton delivering a Fall 2014 Commencement Address

Dr. Alison Barton, an associate professor in the Clemmer College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, joined the East Tennessee State University faculty in 2005.  She coordinates both the education foundations and Honors-in-Discipline programs in her department.  In addition, she and her colleague, Dr. Patrick Brown from ETSU’s College of Public Health, developed a course that helps faculty learn to implement student-centered, active learning strategies in their classrooms, and she also conducts workshops for her fellow faculty on best practices in online education.

Barton received ETSU’s 2014 Distinguished Faculty Award in Teaching.  This and the Distinguished Faculty Awards for Research and Service are the highest honors given to faculty at the university.

Barton graduated with honors from the University of Kentucky with a B.A. degree in psychology and holds both an M.A. in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in school psychology from Northern Illinois University.

Barton was the guest speaker during ETSU’s morning Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 13.  Below are her remarks to members of the Class of 2014.

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Dr. Noland, faculty, parents and guests, and Class of 2014 – thank you so much for offering me the chance to speak today. I have been truly humbled, a little nervous, and kind of excited by the opportunity.

In fact, I was excited enough that, a few weeks ago, I thought I would try on this regalia and show it off to my kids. I thought it looked pretty fancy, and I knew the kids like Harry Potter, so I thought they would be impressed. So, I put it on, went out, and showed them.

Well, they laughed at me. My 9-year-old daughter, Juliet, said I looked like a clown, which made my 6-year-old, James, giggle. My 13-year-old, Nathaniel, tried to be a little more diplomatic. He said, “Well, Mom, it’s one of the more ridiculous things I’ve seen you in, but since other people said you have to wear it, it’s not really your fault.”

To which I replied, “Buddy, if you knew what it took to earn the right to wear one of these, you wouldn’t think it’s ridiculous anymore.”

The point of me telling you that story was NOT actually to embarrass my kids, though payback is sweet. The point of me telling it is to say that I don’t think any of you look ridiculous, because I know what it took for you to earn the right to wear that gown and cap, and for some of you, that hood, and so, Class of 2014, I offer you my sincerest congratulations on the achievement that you are celebrating today.

But the message I want to share with you isn’t really about today; it’s about your future. And in my opinion, it’s really good and exciting news. Which is this: As far as you’ve come and as much as you’ve learned … you’re not done! The truth of the matter is that no matter how good you get at something – you can always get better.

As author Dan Pink puts it, “Mastery is an asymptote.” Now, I figured that if I used that quote, I would still have the math majors and maybe the physics majors still with me, and most everyone else would just nod and smile and hope they’ll still get a diploma even if they don’t remember what an asymptote is. That’s OK, I wouldn’t have either.

So I’ve provided you with a visual of an asymptote in your program. You’ll find it on page 4, under the picture of some lady. An asymptote is a curved line that, for infinity, approaches an absolute value but never actually reaches it.

Mastery Asymptote

In our case, that absolute value is perfection – 100% mastery. It can be mastery of a body of knowledge or mastery of a skill. So what that mastery asymptote tells us is that we can always, always improve or learn more.

Now, I got this particular speaking gig because I received an award for teaching, which was very humbling – mostly because there is so much more I need to learn about effective teaching – and I’m sure there are students of mine who would agree! In fact, as a good friend of mine[1] likes to quote from a brilliant professor[2] he once had, I, too, can say, “My ignorance is vast.”

And while sometimes that vast ignorance is frustrating, most of the time it’s interesting and exciting. The fact that there is always more to learn means that life will never be boring or static.

So I hope you’re not insulted when I say that you haven’t reached mastery yet. Because neither have I, and neither has anyone up here on this stage. (Well, maybe except for Dr. Noland.)

Now, on that visual in your program, you may have noticed a star on the curve. That is my completely non-scientific estimate of about where you are on that mastery asymptote. And I gave it light beams and made it shiny because – look how far you’ve come! That’s great! And I think it’s pretty typical for a lot of people to have another big jump on that curve as they progress in their field, either through work or additional study.

But you can make that jump far bigger and more significant if you recognize a few things.

First, you need to be curious – enjoyably curious. Always ask yourself, what else can I learn in my field? How can I be a better educator, researcher, scientist, care provider, advocate, artist, performer, thinker, communicator? How can I help advance my field? You need to approach life with a sense of wonder, and always, always ask questions.

Second, you need to take the initiative. If you’re really curious, this will probably take care of itself. But you can’t wait around hoping someone else will realize you’re curious and just tell you the answer – you need to go and find the information you crave, and then you need to use it – use it to solve problems, use it to increase your capabilities, use it to generate even more questions, and move up that mastery asymptote.

And that leads me to my third point. Although you certainly did a lot of work to sit where you are sitting today, please realize and appreciate that you did not get there on your own. I certainly would not be standing here today without the help of a huge network of individuals. These are people from across my lifespan, starting with my parents and sister, and including my husband and kids, my close friends, and a good many of the people who are sitting among you and up on this stage today – both faculty AND students.

These people have done for me what the people in your network have done for you: They have been your cheerleaders, your shoulder to cry on, and your educators. There are people in your network who have given you opportunities, given you challenges, and given you a kick in the behind when you might have needed one. There are probably even people in your network who did nothing but irritate or frustrate you. But you know what? I bet you learned something from those people, even if it’s what NOT to do.

So I think the third key to moving up significantly on the mastery asymptote is to be aware of the network of human resources you have. Be sure to appreciate those who are already in your network, and seek out others who can help you learn more. People are a huge key to making leaps and bounds toward mastery. (And if you’re living a good life, you will turn around and generously serve as a resource for others in their quest for mastery, too.)

So, in summary, I guess my message is this:

Yes, absolutely, celebrate today. Take time to pause and enjoy this moment of your accomplishment. But as you move forward into the next phase of your life, I, as a member and representative of your graduating institution … I implore you: Please, don’t just sit there on your asymptote.

Be curious. Take the initiative. Build and appreciate your network of support.

Thank you, and congratulations once again, Class of 2014!



[1] Dr. Patrick J.P. Brown, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences, ETSU

[2] Dr. Marcus Fechheimer, Professor of Cellular Biology, University of Georgia

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