DeSpain wins teaching distinction award

The Teaching Excellence Awards Committee (TEAC) has named the 2012 winners for the Teaching Distinction Award (TDA). Jessica DeSpain, associate professor of English language and literature, was awarded the honor, along with the $500 cash prize.

The chair of TEAC, Denise DeGarmo, associate professor and chair of political science, stated that the winners of TDA were very deserving, as the competition for the award was close.

“From my experience, this was one of the toughest decisions. The rankings were very, very close,” said DeGarmo.

DeGarmo stated that, as part of the process for choosing a winner, members of TEAC sit in and observe the professors in action. A portfolio is put together on the professor and then the determination is made by the committee.

“We look at their history of teaching at the university, what they have done. We also put a huge portfolio together, with teacher observations, pedagogy in class,” said DeGarmo. “We all set out to look at certain classes. At least three or four of us go to every class. What are they doing in class? What are student’s reaction to it? Are they enthusiastic? Do they have the ability to help students understand really complex concepts.”

DeSpain said that giving students experiences is much more important that giving them content. This stems from concepts in 19th Century literature that help her form her pedagogy.

Jessica DeSpain, center, works with students in the Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship (IRIS) Center. center

“Giving students experiences to me is more important than giving them content that comes directly from me. So, everything about my pedagogy is designed to encourage that. It’s partly because I’m obsessed with the 19th Century. In the 19th Century, there’s a very strong idea that reading encourages and develops citizenship. Whitman talks about reading as a gymnasts struggle, that we all have to grapple with the texts and, through the process of grappling with the texts, we can grapple with other issues that make us healthy, engaged citizens who can take on the world and elect good leaders and participate in our communities. That’s what I want to develop in students.”

“There’s this huge debate throughout the 19th Century about what’s more important: the community or the individual, and is there a way to reconcile those two things,” said DeSpain. “It really informs how I think about class because every student is an individual with their own problems and needs but they have to figure out how to somehow work within this larger group of people. And that’s not true just when I’m with them; it’s true for the rest of their lives.”

Because so much of a student’s day is spent in the classroom, DeSpain stated that she really stresses connecting with students and engaging them in all aspects of the class.

We’re in the classroom, we have to connect with one another. I try to find ways to make that a student’s job, as much as it is my job because a class, the way I teach it, can’t succeed unless students are as actively involved. So, I try to really give them ownership in the classroom,” said DeSpain. “One very simple way I do that is we establish, during the first week, what it means to be a good classroom participant, which is sort of like a good citizen. They decide, I write up a rubric, and they get to give themselves a participation grade at the midterm and at the final so they can say this is how I have and have not participated in this community.”

DeSpain stated that she also pushes students to learn to develop questions. In her basic literature courses, DeSpain leads her class to develop questions that could make good paper questions. As a class, the students work through what does and doesn’t work, and what pushed them hard enough to write something that is meaningful, according to DeSpain.

“I also push them to ask their own questions rather than develop questions for them because that means that for the rest of their lives they’re not going to be able to develop questions. It’s my job to teach them how to do that,” said DeSpain. “The thing that really drives me as a teacher is thinking about how to make students naturally inquisitive.”

DeSpain doesn’t stop her work inside the classroom. Because she believes students should be actively engaged as citizens, she also stresses a service learning idea in her classes.

“There’s also making students connect to a world outside of the classroom. Service learning is also really important to my pedagogy. One class that I teach is American nature writing, but I teach it about food and sustainability in literature. Students in that class take on a service learning project. They get to decide who their partner is. Sometimes, it’s Mill’s Apple Farm; sometimes, it’s the farmer’s market in town; sometimes, it’s a soup kitchen. And students spend time working with that organization and then address larger issues related to all of the reading that we’ve done and that experience, in their final papers. So, their writing is really engaged with thinking about citizenship outside of the classroom too.”

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