The William T. Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching is awarded each year to two full-time and two part-time faculty members at Webster University who demonstrate teaching at its finest. Nominated and supported by students and colleagues, they are selected by a committee of their peers for their outstanding teaching. College of Arts & Sciences professors Karla Armbruster (Department of English) and Kate Parsons (Department of Philosophy) each received the Kemper Award for 2014-15.
At the Kemper Luncheon on March 20, Armbruster and Parsons offered President Stroble, Dean Wilson, and other members of the Webster community reflections on their role as educators.
“I was moved,” Dean Wilson said afterward, “and deeply proud.”
Our award-winners’ remarks are below.
Karla Armbruster, Professor of English
When I started teaching twenty-seven years ago, like most graduate students in English, I began with freshman composition. Composition is a skills-based class in which students learn by doing, and so my students and I analyzed examples of the types of papers they were supposed to write, workshopped their drafts, and discussed simple, specific strategies such as countering your audience’s potential objections in a persuasive essay. There was really no place for lectures or tests. So when I started teaching literature classes, it made me a little uncomfortable to see students taking notes as I was talking. I had to restrain myself from saying “No, no — You need to figure things out for yourself if you want to really learn anything!” Looking back, I’m more sure than ever that I was right. To the degree that I’ve been successful as a teacher, I owe that success to the ways I’ve found to motivate and enable my students to take responsibility for their own learn
ing — even in courses where I am very much an expert on the content.
Today, I thought I would share a few of the strategies that have helped me do this.
One thing I learned, long before the era of assessment began, was that it’s crucial to be up-front about your expectations with students. After encountering one too many first-year students accustomed to being told what to think and mistrustful of a teacher who asked them questions instead, I realized that I could eliminate a great deal of potential misunderstanding by spending a day or two at the beginning of class on a discussion of pedagogy and the ideal roles for teachers and students. It turns out that students actually prefer being asked to think for themselves, once they understand that’s an option, and by making this discussion part of the class, we start the semester with the students not only understanding the approach we’ll be taking but actively embracing it.
I also came to see the value of being comfortable with a little chaos. In a true discussion, topics and suggestions come up that you’re not prepared for, and you need to be able to let go of all your careful plans in order to pursue the powerful questions and ideas that will emerge, if you’re lucky. Every few years, I teach Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved, and when we get to one of the most important chapters, narrated in stream-of-consciousness by three different characters, I always have the class read it out loud by going around the room and having each student read a line. Hearing the beautiful
, poetic language coming from different voices is deeply moving and profoundly different than reading the words silently to oneself, and I owe this idea to a former student who suggested it the first time I taught the class.
I have also learned to balance being realistic about what students will do with granting them some freedom. In my Introduction to Literary Analysis seminar, I discovered the hard way that a lot of beginning English majors won’t use a reading journal regularly, even when required to do so, so I turned the journal prompts into daily homework sheets. On the other hand, I am flexible about electronics in the classroom, simply making clear that they can be used only for class-related tasks, and I find that students often use them to engage with class material, looking things up to contribute to discussions. For example, my American literature students were discussing a poem that uses saxifrage, a flower that splits rocks, as a metaphor for poetry, and I wanted them to visualize the contrast between the delicate flower and the hard, sturdy rock. The word picture I was painting for them ran into trouble, though, when I realized I didn’t know what color saxifrage is. But within seconds, three or four students had photos of the flower on their phones and were showing the rest of the class. It’s white, if you were wondering.
Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that you have to take seriously the notion that students not only have something to contribute, but also something to teach you, the teacher, despite whatever expertise you bring to the field. My job is to make sure my students learn. If I learn something from them in the process, it may seem like that’s just a bonus — a perk of the job. But when that magic moment occurs — as it did twice in my eleven o’clock class today —, and a student comes up with a truly amazing, unanticipated insight, it’s also a sign that my students are truly engaged and have taken intellectual ownership of their experience in the class. Because I get to keep learning from my students, I find that teaching is in many ways its own reward. Nevertheless, it was a tremendous honor to receive the Kemper award and join the distinguished company of the other award winners. It’s also a wonderful affirmation that the intuition I had so many years ago — that my students should not just be writing down what I said — was on the right track.
Kate Parsons, Professor of Philosophy
Mr. Kemper, Mr. Leadbeater, Ms. Joyner, and Ms. Hoelzer, thank you so much for your ongoing support of this most prestigious and coveted award at Webster. I, and likely all of the faculty members in this room, feel deeply honored and humbled to be recognized, simply for getting to do a job that I love and care so much about.
I teach Philosophy, a discipline with which I have a complicated relationship. At its heart is a mode of living and approaching the world about which I am passionate. Philosophy requires that we take nothing for granted, that we confront even the scariest and most confounding questions about life and death, and that we gain comfort with questions—sometimes more comfort with questions than with answers. It requires a kind of courage that I don’t always possess, but that I believe in deeply—one that I try to instill and inspire in my students.
And yet its institutionalization in a university setting sometimes swaps this courage for more conservative canonical thinking, ironically privileging safe, familiar, careful arguments over bold but fringe voices and experiences. This tendency unsettles me and sometimes situates me on its margins, particularly in terms of my gender and my class background. The fact that the field is mostly populated by men, white people, and folks from the middle to upper classes (and that it suffers from lack of diversity more than any other field in the humanities) spurs me to ask: whose lives, whose experiences, and questions are considered to be central to philosophy, and whose are on the margins.
In thinking about what it means to be a recipient of this prestigious award, and what it means to teach philosophy well, it dawned on me that similar questions might be appropriately aimed at my own conception of teaching. In an effort to remain mindful of the potential trappings of my privileges as a full-time faculty member—I ask myself not merely who is recognized but also who isn’t typically recognized by an award such as this—and I would like to offer gratitude and recognition to just a few folks who whose work might also be relegated to the fringes, and yet is nevertheless critical to my teaching and to my students’ learning.
I am indebted, for instance, to: the Counseling Center staff, who help students get to my classes, despite depression, abuse, loss of family members, and a whole host of other challenges; to the Academic Resource Center staff, whose work serves as a reminder that my way of learning is not the only one, and that students learn and access resources in myriad ways; to Adjunct Faculty members, who spend immeasurable time with our students and devote themselves to the welfare of our departments, without job security, a living wage, or insurance; to the Groundskeeping and Janitorial staff, who, whether through snow removal or dust removal, work earlier and later than most of us (often under backbreaking conditions) and keep me and my students safe. I am indebted to our Department Associates, who serve as primary contact and sounding board for our students’ daily needs and whose organizational and multi-tasking skills put mine to shame; and finally to IT folks, who connect me with my students within seconds and make it possible for me to answer midnight emails . (Acutally, I’m not really sure I should thank you for this; I probably got more sleep before you were doing such a good job.)
These are just a few of many unnamed members of the university community who play a critical role in fostering a transformative learning experience for our students. In accepting this award I am deeply honored to be publicly named as just one of them, and also humbled by the realization that I have not earned this alone. For all of this, and to the Kemper foundation, I offer my sincere thanks.