Carolyn Collette

Citation for 2006 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

When asked by a couple of English majors about the news that she had been selected for a teaching award, Carolyn Collette remarked, “Good classes make good teachers.” Carolyn, who has held the Alumnae Foundation Chair in English since 1993, was being unduly modest. She turns the most difficult class—one that meets at 8:35 in the morning, fulfills that pesky pre-1700 English requirement, and reads the hardest medieval texts—into a really good class. If our teaching evaluations had a set of adjectives to choose from, the most circled one for Carolyn would be “wonderful.” Close behind would be “fabulous” and “amazing.” In the space on the current teaching evaluations where you put your reasons for taking the course, one student wrote: “Because Professor Collette was teaching it.” Then she scribbled in a big smiley face. Another student wrote across the form in big block letters: “GREAT.”

Carolyn doesn’t just change the way you read and write. She changes the way you think. One student reports, “I have always left her office hours as well as her class refreshed, renewed, and excited to investigate and delve into the subject matter further.” A typical comment: “It is a privilege to be her student.” Another student sums it up: “Put simply, Professor Collette is wonderful.” Sometimes you get the feeling that ordinary responses aren’t enough, as Carolyn’s students reach for metaphors to express how impressive she is in the classroom. “Carolyn is a living breathing interactive encyclopedia,” one student remarks, while another writes, “Her pool of knowledge is both bottomless and entertaining.”

Carolyn has an uncanny ability to draw out student voices. She is surely the Zen master of discussion leaders. Here’s how one student describes how Carolyn leads by not leading: “If a student makes a comment pertaining to the class material, but it does not take the conversation in the path which she has in mind, rather than dismiss it, Professor Collette takes the time to discuss it, and is almost always able to bring discussions based on this comment directly back to the path she originally wanted to take.” Carolyn really believes in the central importance of student voices. With her colleague and friend Dick Johnson, Carolyn wrote a very important book on how to teach college writing, titled Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Personal, Professional, and Public Writing. A key chapter, called “Finding a Voice,” deals with the paradox of inserting “voice” into written words. That paradox is at the heart of Carolyn’s teaching and her scholarship as well.

We like the titles of Carolyn’s courses: “Forging the Ring”; “Crossing Medieval Boundaries”; or “The Matter of Britain: Stories of Arthur and the Grail.” In describing a former medievalist at Mount Holyoke, Carolyn wrote about the difficulty of recovering and conveying “the passionate enthusiasm that sustains a life of scholarship.” Carolyn’s exciting teaching comes right out of her scholarly passions and her passion for scholarship. As a scholar and a teacher, Carolyn herself is a crosser of boundaries. She has written path-breaking studies of the place of women in Chaucer’s world as well as a new book on Vision and Medieval Psychology in the Canterbury Tales. It would have been easy to give Carolyn an award in scholarship as well as teaching.

In her tribute to her predecessor at Mount Holyoke, Charlotte D’Evelyn, Carolyn wrote of how D’Evelyn was “highly respected” and yet “a comparatively quiet member of the Mount Holyoke community.” Carolyn is also a highly respected member of the College community, and rarely raises her voice above a civil forcefulness, but we wouldn’t call her “quiet.” She has served as a very able chair of the English Department where she has taken major responsibilities in shaping the department curriculum and in developing policies for student independent work. Carolyn is one of those rare professors who sees the College whole, and assumes our shared responsibility in contributing to its health.

Carolyn knows the College as well as anyone. She graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke before earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts. We always get a special thrill when an alumna like Carolyn wins a teaching award. It suggests that a good place to learn about good teaching is in a Mount Holyoke classroom. Perhaps some of Carolyn’s students will eventually teach. Whether or not they do, they will remember the extraordinary things that Carolyn did in the classroom, and how it was, in big block letters, GREAT.