Q&A with 2015-16 Outstanding Faculty Award (Teaching) honoree
…Assistant Professor of English Bethany Lee
This is the fifth in a series of Q&A profiles focusing on PNW’s six 2015-16 Outstanding Faculty Award recipients. Associate Professor of English Bethany Lee earned Outstanding Faculty honors for Teaching. The final Outstanding Faculty Award profile will be published in the Nov. 21 Points of Pride issue.
Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Purdue Northwest and previously Purdue North Central?
BL: 2016-17 is my seventh academic year here. I started at PNC in the summer of 2010.
Q: Who or what inspired you to teach, and who or what inspired you to teach English?
BL: It began in second grade when I decided I wanted to be an author. I enjoyed writing stories and poems, and my teacher selected me as one of two students in the class to attend a special young writer’s conference held in my school district. It was just one day, but afterward I knew this writing business was for me.
I was pretty confident in my career choice until about fifth or sixth grade, when adults started to reveal to me the economic realities of trying to make it as a fiction writer—I imagine they thought they should let me know now that I’d had the same career aspiration for a few years. Someone suggested that I could teach English, the subject I loved, and still write on the side, and that seemed a reasonable solution to eleven-year-old me.
So, even before I entered junior high, I knew I wanted to teach English and write, and that never changed. After I earned my bachelor’s in Literary Studies, I taught English and theatre to middle and high schoolers for several years, and then I achieved my ultimate goal of teaching college during graduate school.
Q: How do you pass your enthusiasm for English and your subject matter to your students? How do you keep the subject matter relevant to today’s students?
BL: Honestly, I think the main factor that contributes to student enthusiasm about my subjects is my own enthusiasm. The more excited and engaged I am, the more likely I am to see students become excited and engaged, as well.
Another major factor is listening to my students and knowing their interests—I try to shape my course offerings around my students’ goals wherever possible. So, for example, in my Intro to Professional Writing course, if I have a large number of students one semester who are interested in proofreading and copyediting, we’ll spend more time on those topics, whereas with another group of students in a different semester, we might spend more time on public relations or writing for social media.
Paying attention to students’ interests and goals also helps me ensure that the subject matter is relevant for them. In addition, I try to keep an eye out for current hot topics on social media and use that as a guide for incorporating articles, videos, and other content in my courses—luckily, most of what I teach is flexible in terms of content; in English, I’m often teaching principles of organization, phrasing, structure, argumentation, etc., and we can read almost anything and still be able to analyze how those principles are at play.
I still bring in works of historical, literary, and/or cultural significance, but it helps me to create a nice mix—I’ve had a class read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and an article about Harambe the gorilla all in the same week. It keeps class discussions lively.
Q: You do a lot of outreach through offering a Poetry Slam Camp, fall play, service learning projects, etc. How does this connect students, prospective students and the community to English, and, ultimately, PNW?
BL: I’m a firm believer that my role as an instructor reaches (or should reach, at least) far beyond the confines of the subject and the classroom. Just as elementary school teachers instruct their studies on behavior and citizenship, I believe we should do the same, but in a different way. I like to create opportunities for my students to be more active in the community, and I also try to create opportunities for the community to connect with our students and our campus.
All of the projects that I orchestrate or coordinate involve allowing people to share their gifts in a meaningful way—for me, that mostly means sharing writing and/or performance, because that’s where my personal interests are, and it’s where I feel most competent.
Plus, art is almost always meant to be shared; it often gains significance through the process of sharing, in fact. What’s most important to me about these projects, though, is being active in the community; it doesn’t matter what form that takes. Even with the projects I do, I know it’s not always about what we’re doing so much as it is that the event connects people.
For example, with SlamCamp (a week-long summer writing and arts camp for middle schoolers), there are always a few campers who are only attending because their parents think it’s good for them; they’re not particularly interested in writing, reading, performing, making visual art, or anything else we do. However, these campers often will bond with one of the PNW volunteers (we have both students and professors involved), and through that relationship, the campers will become more engaged, opening the door for greater self-expression and to discuss things like their families, communities, and their future ambitions—including college. For me, community outreach is about this kind of “big picture” approach.
Q: We are told that the ability to communicate, to read, to write are vital to each student’s success in the classroom and in the workforce. Can you elaborate on that?
BL: I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. Many articles and studies show that employers value the “soft skills” students gain in English (and even theatre) classes, such as how to shape a message to meet the audience’s needs.
Communication ability is particularly vital—I once had an engineer who does a great deal of hiring tell me that he’d rather hire a candidate who had strong speaking and writing abilities but mediocre grades in engineering courses than a candidate who was a genius engineer but a poor communicator. He said that it was far more important for someone to be able to successfully communicate with others about a project than to innately understand it–he could teach someone the ins and outs of a project, but he couldn’t teach someone how to write about it.
Beyond that, though, I believe that critical reading and writing are valuable for my students’ quality of life. Those skills are not just helpful in the workplace; they’re also necessary when you’re trying to read between the lines in a text messaging exchange or if you want to determine whether the information you’ve found online about a medical condition is credible. It’s all part of a larger picture of how communication and critical thinking matter in our lives, and I hope I can help my students sharpen those crucial skills.