Head's Note (May 2018)

 

Statue of Demosthenes
Statue of Demosthenes

“I don’t know,” I had to admit. That was my blush-faced response to the professor—and to the class of undergraduates enrolled in ARHI 3002, “Greek Art and Architecture,” a course in which I, also a professor, was likewise a student.

I remember the slow-motioned moments before that painful admission:  sitting in one of those uncomfortable desks, attentively viewing the slides, studiously taking notes, and hearing the professor call out:  “Dr. Ballif?  What Greek sophist is this statue representing?” 

I had no idea.

A long silence was my immediate response. As the proverbial deer in headlights, I could only stare back blankly, and then, finally, when the dead silence became too heavy, mumble, “I don’t know.”

“Demosthenes,” she announced to the class, and I registered her disappointment; I had been introduced to the class as a scholar of the sophists. Yet in defense of my ignorance, I quickly told myself, had she given me a text, such as “On the Crown,” I might have had a fighting chance to respond differently. That is, I don’t exactly plaster my office walls with posters of the sophists. I’m not an expert on the visual representations of their likenesses, and more to the point, I’m not an expert on classical statuary.

However, years later, I still feel a need to defend my ignorance. Yet isn’t “not knowing” precisely the reason for being a student? Indeed, wasn’t that the reason that I chose to become an apprentice of classical art and architecture, so that I could learn what I didn’t know? In 2002, I was fortunate to be awarded the coveted Study in a Second Discipline fellowship. As my primary discipline is rhetorical theory, I wanted to study in a second discipline—that of ancient art and aesthetics. My aim was to follow my desire to examine resonances between the principles of ancient rhetoric and ancient aesthetics, including principles of symmetry, perspective, proportion.

So I found myself in the position of a student, humbled by my ignorance.

But this was no new position for me—nor for the other faculty of the English department. We are, all of us, students. You might say that being a student is our profession. We are students of language, of texts; it is our profession to engage with that which we don’t know. Like many of our students, as faculty, we find ourselves fighting deadlines, finishing writing projects in the wee hours of the night, and dreading our work being “graded” or otherwise reviewed or evaluated. But being a student is what faculty do for a profession. I realize that most people think professors profess (that is, teach), but they also learn (that is, do research). This research may, it is hoped, result in publications, but it most certainly results in enriched teaching.

Our faculty are constantly seeking out learning opportunities. During 2017, for example, thirty of our faculty members went to approximately 85 conferences, where they not only presented their own research, but also learned from presentations from their peers. Further, our faculty attended longer, educational “camps”: Professor Andrew Zawacki, for example, spent time as a Fellow at the Atelier ViceVersa, ATLAS/ Collège International des Traducteurs Littéraires, Arles, France, in a week-long intensive translation session with a dozen other French-to-English translators.  Professor Cynthia Camp attended a specialized seminar, “Understanding the Medieval Book,” in medieval codicology at the University of South Carolina. Professor Maggie Zurawski participated in the week-long Paros Poetry and Translation Symposium. Professor Roxanne Eberle participated in a NEH Institute on Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities at the University of Pittsburgh, “Make Your Edition:  Models and Methods for Digital Textual Scholarship.” The point I am making is this: our faculty are busying themselves with the business of learning.

Further examples are detailed in this newsletter: for example, our faculty apply to participate in the Study in a Second Discipline program and seek out various “Fellow” programs available on campus, such as the Service Learning Fellows, the Online Learning Fellows, and the Writing Fellows. A number of our faculty have been selected as Fellows of the Russell Special Collection Libraries Fellow program (see the feature on Professor John Lowe in this newsletter). Professor Elizabeth Kraft has researched materials like maps in the archives to introduce to her Early Eighteenth-Century Literature class, materials which nicely illustrate the themes and motifs in Robinson Crusoe.

Other faculty members have also been selected for this program. Professor Cynthia Camp developed her medieval manuscript course so that students could work intensely on an advanced research group project on a single medieval book owned by UGA, the Hargrett Hours. Professor Camp articulates what she learned from this experience:  “What I learned the most from the Fellows program was how to think like a librarian: getting a professional's perspective on how what processes they go through during acquisitions and cataloging, the logic behind the cataloguing system, and their vision of best practices during a library instructional visit.”  Professor Nancee Reeves similarly describes what she learned: “Before my fellowship, I just turned my students loose in the archive library, with little direction, thinking the ‘joy of discovery’ would take over.  However, an archive library is quite different than a regular library or even a museum. They need direction, they need to learn the tricks of using a complex system, and they need to know the protocol. For my students to learn, I first needed to learn, which was as much about how to use as archive library as the material in it.”

My point, and I do have one, is this: Our faculty are students as well; they know the pain of spending hours and hours composing work; they know the anxiety of being evaluated, the feeling of not knowing. And of admitting it.

And of embracing it. Indeed, I am suggesting that for all of us, being a student is to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, to extend a gesture of hospitality toward the unknown, and to state without embarrassment, “I don’t know.”

Passionate learners make effective teachers. At our recent Graduation and Awards Ceremony, which honored our graduating students, we were able to acknowledge the excellence of our students with a number of awards and scholarships, made possible by generous endowments. We were also able to acknowledge the excellence of a professor in our department.

The Martha Munn Bedingfield Teaching Award was established to recognize a faculty member of the Department of English for the pursuit of excellence in teaching—to a faculty member who has made a distinct difference in the intellectual lives of students through effective and creative instruction and course development. This year, the award went to Dr. Eric Morales-Franceschini.  In one of the many nominating letters received, one student characterized Professor Morales-Franceschini’s pedagogical influence as such:

He has fostered my growth as a student and as a thinker. He has accomplished this first through his passion for the subject-matter he teaches and his ability to transfer this passion to his students. I have never had a professor who has emboldened me more to tackle difficult texts and to examine them critically. His teaching style encourages students to wrestle with the most challenging questions of the texts, teaching us to ask these questions ourselves in our own readings. I know I would not have been able to grow as much as a writer and a critical thinker if I did not have Dr. Morales-Franceschini as a professor, encouraging me and inspiring me to aim higher, to write more ambitiously.

We appreciate the Martha Munn Bedingfield endowment, which honors a long-time educator and allows us to acknowledge Professor Morales-Franceschini’s expertise as a passionate teacher who encourages students to embrace the unknown, to tarry with the questions that challenge us.

We are also grateful for our other donors who provide support to our students.  Most recently, Bill and Melissa Prigge have funded a scholarship in honor of their son, William, who graduated with both an undergraduate and graduate degree in English from the University of Georgia.

We hope their generosity inspires you, and we hope that you consider contributing to the English Department’s threefold mission of teaching, research, and community research.

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