An Appreciation of Professor Andy Stables

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This post is an appreciation of Andy Stables the researcher and the man.  It is written by Dr Alin Olteanu, a member of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Cultures of Research at RWTH Aachen University.  Alin gave this as an oration at Andy's funeral on February 9th.

Andy was an outstanding PhD supervisor and a great friend.  I will talk about him as I knew him, but my words cannot express all that he has given to me and to many who worked with him.  He is among the most prominent scholars in the philosophy of education and in semiotics, the study of meaning.  As such, he is particularly appreciated as a founder of the semiotic approach to education.

I met Andy in person for the first time when I started my PhD.  On that day, he only asked me about myself and about my interests.  He did not want to inquire about what his new PhD student knows, to assess what am I able to do.  He did not care about testing me.  He genuinely wanted to know me.  In this way, he empowered me to find my own path.  I understood early on that, like his research, Andy’s teaching was guided by his understanding that learning is interpreting.  Students are not learning machines, stacking information quantitatively.  By learning, we afford new and unique interpretations of the world.  To acquire new information is to create new information and, likely, to change one’s previous views.  Andy knew that what the student learns is not the same as what the teacher thinks they are teaching.  He knew, this is to say, that every person is unique and that this is of crucial importance in education.  His teaching was shaped by this profound consideration.  Should this simple but profound notion be properly assimilated formally in education, we would live in a better world.

By understanding that learning is interpreting, Andy knew to leave space for his students and colleagues to develop their own thinking.  He knew to make space for dialogue and, as such, to inspire those around him.  He genuinely cared for the people who worked with him.  Andy’s academic work is harmonious with his personality.  No doubt, Andy contributed to making the world a better place, and not only through his work.  I am not the only one to be saying this today.

Among many merits, his philosophical work brought important contributions to environmental education, the current relevance of which cannot be exaggerated.  That we are each unique does not mean that we are isolated.  On the contrary, for Andy, we are each unique because we are environmentally situated.  Our understandings of the world overlap and we can relate to each other.  Particularly, we learn by relating.  By thinking of learning as environmental, that we learn according to how circumstances may inspire us, his teaching consisted in offering the best circumstances for each student to develop in their own ways.

By doing so, Andy has set me and many others up for success.  He empowered his students and colleagues.  By working with Andy, I overcame personal fears and limitations, and I realized my own potential.  I also became a better, kinder person by observing how Andy remained humane and understanding in any professional circumstances, no matter how stressful.  That is one of his many traits that I try to imitate.  Andy taught me what I needed in order to complete a PhD and have an academic career.  He taught me to write academically and to carry out research and he does not cease to teach me, as he is now teaching me to deliver the most difficult text.  In the way in which he guided me and helped me find my own path, he has given me something priceless, much more important than merely a career, and which will stay with me forever.  I do not know how to name it but, using Andy’s words, I know how to live by it.

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