Erwin Hans on "Driving Ambition"
By Venise Taboada.
To drive ambition… is to dive into failure.
More often than not, students are too conscious of whether they are right or wrong. They seek external validation for answers they come to, whether consciously or unconsciously, hoping for someone to tell them, “Yeah, that’s right.”
But that’s not exactly the most ambitious attitude, is it?
Because ambition is not something that can be classified as right or wrong. It is not simply a matter of attitude towards graduating, either. “Ambition” implies a discipline, a dedication, an irrefutable belief in something bigger and brighter than yourself. For Prof. Erwin Hans, ambition is a personal commitment.
Erwin has dedicated decades to education. In those years, he has received multiple teaching awards, as well as amassed experience in the politics of higher education, serving as programme coordinator, and now department chair. However, what is the most interesting thing in all this are the things that happen behind the scenes, beyond whatever you think “professor”, “programme coordinator”, or “department chair” might mean.
In a module last year, Erwin worked with a group of students who struggled to get along. “Whatever you think might go wrong in a project group,” he said, “this group had it!”
For any teacher, this is a huge headache, and it certainly was the same for Erwin it seemed. However, he wasn’t willing to back down from the challenge. “I told myself, I’m getting these students to the finish line!” he told me. “They’re going to pass [this module]!”
And he told me: It was hours and hours of video calls, fixing code, crying students. It was a mess of emotions, a struggle toward knowledge, and one of the most difficult things he’d done as a teacher thus far.
“But I made a commitment to my students,” Erwin said. “As a teacher, I am here to help them through. I admire students who struggle, because it means they’re showing the same commitment back.”
Ambition can be as simple as a belief in this one project group to pass.
And it did.
It’s a success story, and one to be immensely proud of for sure, but Erwin did not do it alone. He had help from study advisers and fellow teachers. IEM is simply such a community; “I can walk to my colleague’s office, scratching my head, and ask them, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with this, could you help me?’” he said.
This is one of the key features of IEM, its people and how open they are to success, but also to failure. They do not give up on you when you’re struggling. Rather, they encourage you to ask for help, just like Erwin himself does, from the people around you. It’s always surprising who might lend a helping hand when you least expect it. For example, Erwin recounts a story from his earlier days as a teacher, when he had just been promoted to assistant professor and was asked to give his first lecture.
“I could never imagine doing presentations,” Erwin said. He was quite a shy, nervous student, who channelled that energy into studying hard. His ambitions at the time were to eventually graduate and work for Ortec, a company whose values aligned with his, but life had thrown him into a lecture hall instead.
In his first lecture, he was so nervous that he came overprepared with 200 slides! That’s more than any student could ever dare to peruse, much less sit down for. With the number of slides he’d prepared, he had to talk fast, and talk fast he did. Soon enough, the lecture break came, and attempting to push past his comfort zone, he approached a student waiting at the coffee machine. “How was the lecture?” he asked.
“Oh,” said the student, “it was too fast.”
And Erwin will forever profess his gratitude to this student for his honesty. Otherwise, he would have never realised how difficult to follow his lecture was, but more importantly, he would have never made the most important realisation of his teaching career: That in the entire lecture hour, he wasn’t even looking at his students. He wasn’t checking to see if they were following, or pausing to ask if they were still with him. Isn’t the point of a lecture to teach?
So, after the break, he announced that he’d been made aware of talking too fast – earning him many nods – and he started the lecture over again, slowly this time, making sure to look at his students carefully.
One might never guess such an experience from Erwin these days, who seems ultimately quite comfortable in the lecture hall, and who possesses quite a large experience with programming to the point where helping students spot their mistakes is almost like second nature.
Now, he spends time with his ten-year-old daughter, happily recounting their experiences together. He brings this joy to his colleagues when he chats with them by the coffee machine, laughing together. He brings these laughs to his students, whom he eagerly challenges in their perceptions, their answers, pushing them to think for themselves and find an answer that is right for them.
He demonstrates a commitment to his students that marks an ideal teacher: one that fosters a collaborative atmosphere to the best of his ability, remembering to look properly at those he is teaching, and in so doing, he demonstrates a keen sense for spotting capacity. He knows who his students are, what they do, and what they are capable of. This is perhaps one of the most inspiring traits a teacher can have (which explains all the awards), but it also sheds light on something more valuable: the ability to notice, within yourself, what you are capable of – and march forward towards that.
None of us know what the future may hold. None of us know if our current dreams will ever come true, or if they might change someday. All we know is our wins and our losses, our mistakes and frustrations; what we are capable of, here and now.
Our ambition, our personal commitment to ourselves.
“I think I like failure,” Erwin said, laughing. “How else are we going to move forward?”