Teaching Excellence Awards

 Year Awarded: 2004

Faculty Award winner

Tison Pugh

 College of Arts and Sciences


The one common feature of all medieval literature, despite differences in authors, cultures, and genres, is that it is very, very old. When beginning my courses, I often face resistant students who have predetermined that, because of its age, the literature under examination is useless, if not altogether dead: it's irrelevant, they have concluded, and it offers nothing of interest or value to contemporary society. For my pedagogy to be effective, I must break down their resistance and demonstrate that old literature is still very much alive. To accomplish this goal, I rely upon a pedagogical practice that centers on the student both as an individual and as a member of a community of learners.

On an individual level, I demand that students respond to our course readings with both analytic rigor and imaginative empathy. For example, to understand Beowulf we must explore it within its own cultural context, paying close attention to its narrative structure and its language, as well as the ways in which it engages with Anglo-Saxon legendary history. But a text is not a lifeless corpse only meant for critical dissection, and I also ask my students to make connections between the past and the present. How does Beowulf enlighten current constructions of gender, for example, or how can it comment on the United States' current War on Terrorism? The issues with which medieval literature engages never die, and I provide ample opportunities for my students to consider a text rigorously while engaging with its issues imaginatively.

In addition to asking my students to engage with critical issues as unique individuals, I also provide opportunities for them to share their perspectives with one another. By forming small communities of learners within my classroom through opportunities for group discussion and peer reviewing one another's written work, I ask the students to trust one another and to allow themselves to help (and to be helped by) their peers; with such a base of peer support and mutual concern, my classrooms permit students to experience the triumphs of learning both as individuals and as part of a collective scholarly team.

My role in the educational process is to adapt to new challenges and changing conditions in the continual quest to foster personal initiative in students while providing guidance that does not devolve into a crutch. For students to develop into independent critical thinkers, they must be challenged yet nurtured, and I seek to bring about this vibrant tension by demanding evidence of engagement from all students. Finding the perfect balance among subject matter, student needs, and classroom praxis in teaching is an elusive goal, but one that I find inspiring. All of this work is worth it when students report to me that they would never consider reselling their copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It may be old, but it's a vibrant, alive, and priceless piece of literature, no matter what they could get for it from the bookstore