In Their Own Words
Oberlin OnCampus asked the six recipients of Oberlin’s 2013-14 Excellence in Teaching Award what the recognition means to them and about their teaching and research interests.
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Director, Comparative Literature Program
I am honored, humbled, and a little embarrassed to receive this award. It seems especially splendid to be recognized for one’s teaching at Oberlin, where pedagogical activity is taken seriously as an art, duty, vocation, and calling. I plan to brag shamelessly about it the next time I speak with my colleagues at the University of the Great Big Undergraduate Lectures.
That in itself is not unusual, for I often descend to braggadocio when I compare notes with my peers at UGBUL. It is a personal foible I am unable to overcome and to which I succumb anew every time I remember that at Oberlin I am blessed to have students who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, creative, and demanding—and fellow faculty and administrators who are the same.
If there is no error and I really am getting this award then I owe it in part to the freedom I have had to develop courses in disparate academic areas. I thank the English department and the program in comparative literature for allowing me to teach the variety that has nourished, and at times force-fed, my scholarship.
Recently I coedited the volume Emily Dickinson and Philosophy, published in the fall of 2013 at Cambridge University Press, in which I contributed an article on Dickinson and Heidegger that grew out of discussions in two classes and a private reading. Similarly my “French Joyce” class enabled me to develop an article on Joyce and 19th-century French fiction, forthcoming in the next issue of the James Joyce Quarterly, as well as a chapter in the 2013 volume Joyce and Derrida. I am currently at work on a book-length project at the intersection of literature and medicine that draws upon my first-year seminar Ars Moriendi: Death and the Art of Dying.
Associate Professor of Computer Science and Director of the First-Year Seminar Program
Teaching is the heart of Oberlin. It is why students come to the college, and why I chose to be here. Many years ago I turned down tenure track offers from several state universities to come to Oberlin on a temporary position because I was so impressed by the students I met on my interview. I have never regretted that. In the years since I have found the Oberlin students to be endlessly stimulating. I can’t imagine a more fun place to teach, a place where the students could possibly be any more demanding or any more receptive to good teaching. I feel that my job is to challenge them and theirs is to rise above the challenges I give them. The students have been winning this contest for 34 years. Oberlin students stretch me and my colleagues inspire me. What could be better?
At several points in my career I have stumbled into situations where I was in a position to lead members of the faculty. The most striking of those efforts was the inception of the First-Year Seminar program, which we started in the spring of 2000. The secret to this program was trust—trusting the faculty to create stimulating courses without the structure of major requirements, and trusting the students to dive enthusiastically into those courses without being required to do so. This wouldn’t work at many schools, but at Oberlin the very lack of requirements and specification resulted in people engaging intellectually on their own terms. This is how academia is supposed to work, and seldom does elsewhere. The focus on teaching and learning is what makes Oberlin the special place that it is.
Associate Professor of Comparative American Studies and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
I'm deeply honored to receive this award, as one of the special qualities of Oberlin College has always been the company of stellar teachers. I believe teaching is a deeply collaborative practice, and I am indebted to the other faculty who have helped me to learn what it means to teach. I especially want to acknowledge my colleagues in the Comparative American Studies Program, who are models of engaged teaching and effective mentorship.
I also want to acknowledge the students who challenged me from my first week at Oberlin to imagine what it means to make the social justice principles that are a key intellectual component of our work in comparative American studies a central part of my pedagogical practices. I see the classroom as a space in which we are all colearners, developing skills of engaged, compassionate listening and the capacity to collaborate in ways that deepens our analysis because it values in a deep way our differences in perspective, experience, and understanding.
I am also indebted to and inspired by the AIDS activists whose work led me to my research interests in gender and sexuality, health inequalities, and social movements. One important lesson of this work is the way meaningful, life-saving change comes when people collaborate across their different forms of knowledge, life experience, and identity. These values have shaped the way I think of classroom encounters around difficult subjects, whether we take on emergent questions about the ways in which marriage equality raises important debates about the intersections of sexuality, race, and religion in the United States, or the ways in which citizens and experts can produce meaningful interventions to address the inequalities that render some groups in the United States and the world vulnerable to illness and premature death. I see my teaching as a space for me to learn from students what they most need to know in order to become agents of change in the world they want to bring into being. This learning enables me to design and facilitate learning opportunities to make the knowledge we explore in classroom settings powerful and meaningful both in that moment in and in the long run. This is difficult work sometimes (or often!), but Oberlin offers a wonderful community to take on these challenges.
Associate Professor of Piano
I am surprised and grateful for this award. I hope I can continue to work well for Oberlin!
Professor of Piano
I recently received a note from a trusted colleague: “How do you get your students to sound so different but individually interesting?” I took it as a compliment.
In teaching piano performance, we deal with two significant entities: one, our vast repertoire, with its gloried history (for convenience, let's say Bach to Ligeti), and demanding technical, stylistic, and musical challenges; the other, the student as a person, with her unique temperament, background, and psychological makeup. I consider it my job to address both these aspects, the art and the artist, the goal being to create an ideal synergy, to release the student’s individual creativity and integrity while remaining true to the complex truths revealed by the musical score.
Professor of Violin
In 1993-94 I came to Oberlin as a visiting professor. Learning of the unique history of Oberlin, as the first college in the United States to admit women and African Americans, as well as its focus to develop an increasingly international student body made a deep impression on me. This experience convinced me of the importance of teaching in an environment where students from all over the world can meet for intensive studies with an outstanding international faculty, develop friendships, and exchange ideas among themselves. Students, some from countries which have embraced classical music fairly recently, have inspired me to look at music and teaching in new ways. I have always striven to assimilate what these students brought with them in terms of thinking about music so their personalities would remain true to themselves while giving them my experiences and insights formed in the “old” world, where the roots of classical music lie. I believe that this combination of cultures as well as the daily interaction that all of my students have with their peers and faculty has provided each of them with a broader outlook on music and life in general.
Traditions are important. At the same time, one of the most important lessons I learnt in life and can teach my students is that traditions also change and evolve over time, and that they each can contribute to this evolution in their own way.
Receiving the Teaching Excellence award is a gratifying acknowledgement that my approach is valued and contributes to the learning environment of Oberlin College. Yet I do not feel that I have accepted it on my own behalf only. Teaching the violin is a give-and-take process of exchange between the student and the teacher. In this sense, I feel that this award is one that I share with all the students who have passed through my studio.