With Thanks

I’m feeling a bit wrecked today, and I’m turning to my blog for a cure. There was a time once before when writing in this little space helped me to start moving again, and I’m hoping the strategy will work this time.

First, I said it in the comment thread, but I want to mention here just how amazing and humbling Alan Levine’s recap post about this year’s Faculty Academy was. I was literally swept away by it — to the point where I actually had to stop reading it and come back later.

I’ve been back at UMW (this time) for almost three years, and for the last two years I’ve had the remarkable pleasure of being a part of Faculty Academy. In my previous tenure at UMWMWC, I had participated in Faculty Academies before, but in the intervening years the event had changed, expanded, and grown.

For the last 9 months, I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering how we could possibly follow last year’s event — and wondering how I, in my current acting role, could lead us there. I was wrong to worry. I was wrong to not stop and enjoy the process more. I was wrong to focus so much on the product (when will I start listening to my own advice?). I was wrong not to trust.

This year’s Faculty Academy was wonderful, and I can take little credit for any of it. It was wonderful because of the amazing willingness of UMW faculty to reveal themselves and their work. I am amazed every year by this willingness; I am humbled by it.

It was wonderful because of our guest presenters: Alan, Barbara, and Karen who shared of themselves so generously and inspired us again and again. It still floors me how I can feel so connected to people whom I “met” online. I’ve been reading Alan and Barbara’s blogs for years; it was incredible to have them here in person.

It was wonderful because of my colleagues in DTLT who simply dove into every aspect of the event. The commitment that they demonstrate to our work is breathtaking, and Faculty Academy is simply one moment every year when it becomes almost visible. Trust me when I tell you I live with that commitment every day, and it is humbling, too.

Faculty Academy was wonderful because at UMW we have Chip German. I’ve talked to enough people at other universities and colleges at this point to realize how amazing it is to have a CIO who understands and supports the kind of work that we’re trying to do in DTLT. There are lots of reasons administrators could come up with to shy away from the kind of engagement that we’re trying to foster at UMW, but Chip is willing to challenge them all, and for that I am very grateful.

Faculty Academy was wonderful this year because Gardner Campbell is back at UMW. I can’t imagine this event without him, and I can’t thank him enough for his willingness to contribute to the production and programming of this year’s event (on top of everything else he does).

Now I’m going to digress a little, but I promise to bring it all back together in the end. 😉

A little over ten years ago, I walked into Gardner’s office and asked him to work with me on my senior honors thesis. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Every week for a semester, I looked forward to our regular meetings. When one ended, I was counting the days and hours until the next began. What made Gardner extraordinary was that he showed me I could teach him, too. I know now that what he was doing was inviting me into a real community, a conversation in which we were both partners. He was still the faculty member; he was still guiding me. But, more and more, as the semester went on, he let me lead, too. At the time, I thought that the experience was amazing simply because of how it affected me personally. But, now I know that what I was experiencing was teaching at its finest. And it is my belief in the power of that kind of teaching that has brought me to the work I’m doing today. I guess what I’m saying is, I learned a lot about John Donne that semester, but, more importantly, I learned a lot about teaching, learning, and the power of people to come together (to commune) around ideas. That’s the most amazing kind of communion I’ve ever experienced.

That year (and for several years following) I struggled and toyed with the notion of going back to graduate school for early modern literature. In the end, I chose a different path. Early this past Friday morning, as I was driving back from dropping Barbara Ganley off at Dulles airport, I realized something. The real reason I wanted to go get a PhD in lit back then was because I wanted to grow up to be Gardner Campbell’s colleague. In the end, I discovered that my calling lay in a different direction, but I still got my wish. How cool is that?

And, really, at the heart of my desire back then lay a wish to be colleagues with so many amazing teachers that I encountered at Mary Washington: John Morello, Terry Kennedy, Donald Glover, Bill Kemp, Gregg Stull, Tadesse Adera, to name just a few.

What made all of these teachers extraordinary was their willingness to give of themselves, their commitment to being in conversation with each other and their students. It’s that willingness that changed my life when I was a student; it’s that same willingness that we witness every year at Faculty Academy, and it is inspiring.

Coming back to work at the place where you studied–the place where you came into yourself–is both a blessing and curse. It is amazing to be given the chance to work with the very people who helped me find my voice. It is frightening, too. When I first arrived back at MWC to work in 2000, I felt like I was walking through a ghost town. Everywhere I went, this campus haunted me. I remembered a thousand moments of discovery, love, pain, and euphoria, each linked to a different building, green lawn, classroom, office. Those moments seemed so far away and yet so very close. And to encounter the very teachers who brought me so many of those moments, but to encounter them in this new context and as this new version of myself was jarring. The other people whom I shared those moments with — my classmates — were all gone and scattered. But I saw them everyday in faces of the students on campus walk or in the halls of duPont. They looked the same. I swear I could feel what they were feeling; I could read their minds.

Now, UMW feels more like the place I work than the place I went to school. Except, I’m still going to school here. I have the most amazing group of fellow travelers on this journey. We are quite the motley caravan.

And every year at Faculty Academy, I’m reminded of this in the most dramatic fashion. It shouldn’t take an event like this to remind me of what a gift I have. I will try to be better at remembering it, always.