When you first meet Erez Binyamin, a lively outgoing computer engineering student at Rochester Institute of Technology, it’s hard to imagine he was once shy and introverted. We sat down with Erez and his inspirational professor, Joseph Fornieri, to talk about the profound transformation that can take place when student and teacher connect in a “dialogue of souls.” - Doug Sprei
I’ll share a quick story to illustrate what motivated me to interview you.
This morning as I was walking my dog on the sidewalk, I came upon a group of students waiting for the school bus. I smiled at them and said, “Good morning, good morning!” No one said a word to me. . . they all looked down and stared at their phones. It’s become endemic among young people. By contrast, when I sat next to you at ACTA’s Gala a few months ago, I was struck by the way you made full eye contact and engaged with me, expressing interest, awareness and connection. Have you always been this way?
No, not at all. When I came to R.I.T., like most students, I was pretty introverted. And I wouldn’t necessarily be the kid who would walk up to you while you were walking around campus and smile and greet you.
So what sparked the change?
Specifically, I met Dr. Joseph Fornieri when I came into his class, “Political Rhetoric and Deliberation.” He has an energy when he speaks. We were in a lecture hall, but I felt that every day, he seems to focus on a different individual in the class, and goes out of his way to make that person speak – especially if they don’t want to.
So I was in his class and I was nervous every time his hand came to point towards me, for like the first month or two. But I also spent time with him during his office hours, and he gave me a lot of tips, and he’s been a super important mentor to me since then.
How did he approach this topic with you?
It’s professors like him that go out of their way to not just tell kids to speak and make fun of them for not doing so. He didn’t ridicule me for being introverted. But what he would do, especially in office hours and also in the lectures, he would incorporate philosophy into being extroverted.
So he would say: “This is why you need to speak. This is why, even if you don’t want to voice your opinion, you have to learn how to do it. And it’s not because being introverted is bad and being extroverted is good. It’s because if people don’t have that exchange of thought and exchange of ideas – and the only way to do that is through talking – if that doesn’t happen, then the world can very quickly not become a good place.” So he sort of tempered my natural avoidance of speaking with almost like a moral prerogative to learn how to speak and learn how to communicate.
I suspect he’s looking at the prospect of how students will comport themselves after college, entering the working world and needing communication skills to succeed. How do you see the point he was raising with you?
I can speak from firsthand experience from when I was on co-op at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a scientific lab setting, but the ability to communicate is not nearly as strong as it should be amongst different engineers. And probably one of the biggest skills that people made note of frequently was that I was pretty good at talking to the different engineers on the team and figuring out when they were working on problems on angles that wouldn’t work together.
We were working on the SWAT satellite, which does imaging of the ocean. It’s launching in 2020. There were two teams working very hard on their respective goals, but they weren’t communicating. Now the way you do processing on a satellite is with hardware; and if you put too much load on one part of the satellite, another part won’t be able to function. So I saw something that would create too much strain; it was going to pull too much power on one part of the satellite and that either one or the other just wouldn’t work. I ended up telling my boss, and he went and talked to the other team leader. And they were like, “Oh my God, this is not going to work.”
A couple years back there was a lack of communication between a French team and the American team working on the satellite, and they messed up a metric to customary conversion. And the satellite ended up thinking that it was going down instead of going up; so the rocket that was launching it thought it was upside down, so it corrected itself and crashed into the ground, and that was like a common communication flaw. So the inability to communicate can create millions of dollars of loss. I mean, I got to see that first-hand when I was at JPL.
Do you remember the moment when you took Professor Fornieri’s feedback to heart? Did you transform overnight, or did you have to practice?
I guess it was the moment that I made the decision to switch my strategy. I was sitting in his office hours and talking to him about it. For the first part of the semester, I was grumpy that I had to take a perspective course – because they make it mandatory for us to take a liberal arts course. And I was never particularly interested in Plato or Socrates before I was involved with Professor Fornieri, but I can’t graduate without it, so I was arguing with him.
I was upset. I said, “Why are you forcing introverted people to not be the way they naturally are?” And he proffered the whole moral argument and then said, “The best way to practice is to continue having arguments.”
What kind of arguments, and with whom?
He told me that a great way to do what I wanted to do was to argue with people in my life who I disagreed with. He said, “Find people you normally wouldn’t talk to, that you have issues with, and argue with them about those issues.”
I was like, “Ha, I probably should be doing that anyway. If I’m disagreeing with someone I should probably talk to them about the situation.” Because before what I did was I just internalize it.
So I guess it was when I was sitting in his office hours and he gave me that strategy. He said, “If you go out and talk to people about how you feel and what you think, that’s the best way to develop the ability to articulate what you feel and what you think.” I guess that was probably the moment, if there was a moment.
Do you see a time when, having taken this stuff to heart in your own personal process, you would decide to pay it forward, in the sense of what Professor Fornieri did for you?
Yes. I’m also a teaching assistant and freshman mentor, so twice a week I have a mentoring session with incoming computer engineering freshmen. I help them with their homework and they ask me questions about what courses they should take and so on. I try to point a lot of them in the direction of the political science department here at RIT and, if they can, to Professor Fornieri. The waiting lists for his classes . . . He’s an amazing professor. But I mean it’s not just him, it’s the entire political science department and getting involved and sort of standing up and debating and reading about these great figures.
Honestly, I think there’s a lot of power in those books. The way Plato writes, I think is it’s very simple but also very straightforward. I think just being exposed to that is enough for most kids to, I guess, turn on. In terms of paying it forward, I guess that’s what I’ve done. I’ve pointed my freshmen in his direction and the political science department direction.
With the freshmen you encounter, do you see in them a tendency to just be introverted like you were?
Absolutely. I see pretty much a bunch of me coming in.
Where do you think the responsibility lies, in terms of opening these students up to debate and new ideas? When you look at the University of Chicago, they are very clear with their message: “If you want to come to this university, you will encounter ideas that aren’t comfortable, that sometimes will offend and challenge your ideology.”
I think one thing a university is responsible for is teaching where communication or miscommunication can lead to huge issues, especially with engineers. The goal should definitely be to have students who wouldn’t otherwise be communicating, communicating. And to have everyone who uses your institution become a competent person in terms of expressing themselves and their ideas. And if that isn’t happening, then we’re just repeating the same mistakes that have been happening in engineering for years. We’re going to have another issue where we get the rocket wrong and it goes upside down because we didn’t communicate. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, that’s embarrassing.
So it’s definitely part of the responsibility of the university to create competent communicators. In terms of is it the responsibility of the university to bring speakers that definitely will offend the students, just for the purpose of offending them? I don’t know about that.
Do other students respond to Professor Fornieri’s challenge the way you did?
I think maybe once or twice there’s been a frustrated student talking to him about his class. I’ve definitely spoken to students first-hand; and there are some kids that leave his class and are perpetually angry about it. That he forced them to speak and challenged them in that way. But I think everyone who goes through it is stronger for it.
* * * * * * *
Following on the conversation posted above, we reached out to Joseph Fornieri, Professor of Political Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, to explore his thoughts on working with students like Erez.
Our talk with Erez Binyamin opened up some seminal questions about the nature of teaching, and the effect you had on him. What are you thinking about when you engage in dialogue with students?
Fornieri: Well, here you’re striking an existential chord in terms of the very heart and purpose of teaching as a calling. That sounds something like a cliché, but. . .
But it’s not.
It’s not! Your discernment in asking this question speaks a lot. And you wish, you hope and pray that administrators out there are conscious of it, notwithstanding all the rhetoric and scientific models dominating education that say there’s some type of a “technique” that we can apply to students. While there are certain methods that can be more or less successful, really, teaching is about reaching souls. So to jump into deep waters, it has to do with reaching souls.
I’m fine with jumping into deep waters with you.
So there is to me almost a religious dimension of teaching; a strong sense of moral obligation that’s animated by love.
I like how Erez mentioned how I don’t make fun or ridicule. . . “Harm no student” is the first principle. Harm no student; and that means even if students are difficult. And so, getting students to speak like this, like Erez spoke to you about, I think involves a discernment of souls.
And you seek to empower each of the students in your class, empowering them to engage in that Socratic quest for self-knowledge and wisdom. And I think you have to model that yourself, and you have to believe it, that what you’re doing isn’t simply mental masturbation. Existentially, this is your compass.
He said you told him to argue with people he disagreed with. What signals to you that students like Erez will take it to heart in the way you would hope?
You engage. I tell the students, “We’re not atoms. You have to risk a little. But you don’t do this in a spirit of arrogance. You find interlocutors that you can mutually be involved in the search for truth with.”
You know, it goes on, thousands of years after Socrates, right? I mean Socrates had this effect on his students, who then went out and engaged others, not to arrogantly lord over them, but in a common quest for wisdom. And there’s a certain humility that is part of that quest. Socrates’ self-knowledge began with a knowledge of ignorance.
There’s also a trust that can be discerned, right? Something can be discerned from this; it’s not simply Sisyphean or a skeptical endeavor, or it’s not simply a matter of cocktail discussion. Because very often, someone will say, “Well, you take liberal arts so you can be well-rounded.” Well, well rounded so I can drop my discussion of Aristotle at a cocktail party and someone thinks I’m smart? You know, there needs to be a higher quest than that; and this continues and sustains me because I have students like Erez.
He’s actually paying it forward, doing his part to infect freshmen….
Yes, he’s mentoring them and sending me kids that he’s mentoring, which is so sweet! (laughter)
And in that vein, our long-term reason for connecting with you is this idea of creating a network of student ambassadors and professors who embody the principles we’re talking about, as it were.
Create a community! Create a community that is national, one student at a time. You could serve as a conduit bringing these kinds of people together who have that discernment; you don’t just want kids who see the life of the mind as utilitarian and simply about making money and a conventional measure of success. You want the next real leaders, who, whatever they go into, are gonna have some moral compass.
You at ACTA can serve as a conduit and also bring these kinds of teachers together. And how are you gonna make a difference? One student at a time.
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