Citation for 2003 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching
Taking a course with Lauret Savoy presents students with an intriguing, enticing paradox: on the one hand, an invitation to enter an unusually friendly and open classroom environment - as one student says, "you can't really call it a classroom - it's too comfortable" - and, on the other, an invitation to embark on an arduous educational journey. Students regularly characterize the workload - with its voluminous readings, numerous papers, lab experiments, debates, skits, and special projects - as: "overwhelming", "challenging", "demanding", "very heavy", an "ambitious agenda." Students writing about her 200-level courses routinely protest that they should be changed to 300 levels. And yet, by the end of the semester, most emerge tremendously excited and thankful - amazed by the depth and breadth of their accomplishments. "Lauret is phenomenal. I have never taken a class in which there was so much work and I was so excited about it all" writes one student; "This is by far the most challenging class I have taken here . . . it is also the best." writes another. What's her secret? How can such a demanding workload be so engaging?
One hears again and again of Lauret's unique spirit as a teacher - open, personable, spontaneous, vulnerable, full of enthusiasm for the material and possessed of an insatiable, humane intellectual curiosity. The end effect, as so many attest, is an irresistible invitation to embark on a collective, intellectual journey, in which traditional professor/student divisions disappear and a spirit of communal endeavor prevails.
Lauret's eagerness to tackle tough questions without scripted answers, to be genuinely interested in a diversity of perspectives, to pursue diligently unexpected new tangents to a topic -- this eagerness sets the standard for all. As one writes, "She has high standards for her work as a professor and for her students' work and she has made this class both a challenge and a joy." Another senior science student writes, "Her attitude, enthusiasm and imagination are the best of any teacher I've had at the college." Another sums up a more general feeling, "Part of the reason I work so hard in this class is that I know if I didn't, it would actually hurt Lauret - she has such care and high expectations for each of us."
Although Lauret regularly lectures, class time is often devoted to spirited discussion sessions, framed in a variety of ways - from small group break-outs, to debates to "eco-dramas." In these, she constantly brings disparate and controversial points of view to bear on a topic - using a variety of media to provoke new ways of seeing, imagining and thinking. Students praise Lauret's careful coordination of these many ingredients - the deft way she orchestrates so many different approaches to allow the complexity of an issue to be savored and known. "Lauret is excellent at picking material that is controversial . . . she often plays devil's advocate to get us to think more and express ourselves" one student writes.
This interest in different perspectives makes sense. Lauret's own background is richly interdisciplinary - her early studies in geology, history, and studio art laid the foundations for her current interests in both geological analyses of environmental change, and interdisciplinary studies of human environmental history and ideas of landscape. At the heart of this work, and of her teaching, is a concern for the human complexity and cultural underpinnings of our many ways of knowing the earth and environment. Science students are especially appreciative of the refreshing breadth of perspective her courses offer - for the opportunity to rethink familiar conceptions in imaginative, new ways.
In their course evaluations, many students grapple with how to articulate the sense they have of a qualitatively different kind of learning experience with Lauret. One writes, "you don't just take class with Lauret, you live it!" Certainly, her great care for the contributions of each student is remarked on again and again. "I've never been so excited to learn before. It's very rare that I have felt as valued as a person and as student as I have in this class." Or another, "I've never had a professor so willing to work, to actually work with me, so I could have the most possible resources to complete my project." But it also has to do with Lauret's own example, her challenge to herself and, implicitly, to each student, to take their learning to heart. What does this knowledge mean to you? How does this information, how do these experiences, alter your view of the world, of the environment, of the way you live your life? The many students who take up this challenge discover that real knowledge and learning has the capacity to change you. As one senior sums up, "This class impacted me deeply at a personal level and has greatly enriched my experience at Mount Holyoke . . . the issues dealt with are essential and ones I will continue to grapple with for the rest of my life."