Lois Brown

Citation for 2004 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Lois Brown is on a hunt, a hunt for lost and silenced voices of nineteenth century African Americans. She takes both her readers and her students along with her, inviting us and them to sit down and listen for a while to the complex narratives of Americans intent on defining themselves and reporting accurately about the worlds in which they lived. Her first book, Memoir of James Jackson by his Teacher, Miss Susan Paul, was an edition of what had been lost and is now recognized as the first African American biography. It is no coincidence that Lois Brown would write first of all about a young student and his teacher, nor that the text itself would re-shape our understanding of the lives of African American children, on one hand, and the development of African American literature, on the other. Her teaching and scholarly work spring from the same rich loam and reflect the same deep commitment to understanding how African American writers and thinkers have used the power of the word in their own search for freedom and justice.

And this is what she teaches her students: the power of the word - read, spoken, and written - in their own search for freedom and justice. A first year student describes her experience in Lois Brown's seminar, Memories of Home: "She encourages us to write with power. And when we read, she directs us to the meat of the meaning." And how does she direct eighteen new students to find "the meat of the meaning?" Another student answers: "Professor Brown impressed me greatly with her ability to lead innovative and challenging discussions, posing provocative questions and pushing us all just a little bit further. She never dictated the dialogue; she merely (!) nudged us toward our own ideas, gracefully."

Graceful, undoubtedly, as we all know her to be. And enthusiastic and exciting. Students in her Nineteenth Century American Women writers course add, unanimously, "amazing!" "An unsurpassed teacher of English, and at 8:35!" Another said, "The most enthusiastic and inspiring instructor I have ever had." "Tough but fair" is the complementary theme, to amazing and inspiring, certain evidence of her students' (and our) willingness to work very hard, when the work helps them find their own voices and their own understandings of their place in the world. She is "dynamic, articulate, and commanding; she demands quality!" And another: "She forces you to think; you don't get away with 50% effort in this class, ever."

Students in her very popular 300 level seminar on Toni Morrison reflect on their discussions together: "She fosters great class discussions that truly leave us mesmerized and challenged." A classmate said, "she pushed us to think harder and reach into issues much more deeply. One cannot leave this class without a sense of growth and development as a reader and a critic of English literature."

How does she do this? She uses three tools: she leads stimulating and provocative class discussions, with close attention to the texts and their contexts, essentially yoking together the processes of critical reading and discussion in every class period. One student in her seminar, Slavery and the Literary Tradition, reported this: "Her refusal to accept incomplete statements helped me to develop my critical analytic skills, and as a woman, I particularly appreciated her encouragement to make direct and unqualified statements, with no excuses."

Her second tool is how closely she works with students as writers themselves, even in the survey courses. She helps students develop paper topics, encourages revisions, and, as one student says, "gives you the time you need to really write a piece you were happy with." Another voice found and amplified.

Her own self and her attention to students' own development is her third potent tool. A senior English major reported "the personal attention that Professor Brown provided me and her interest in my whole education was the first instance in my four years at Mount Holyoke that I felt a professor had truly taken the time to give me feedback well beyond a simple grade." She teaches students with the same care with which she teaches texts.

We honor Lois Brown today as a consumate teacher, who listens with deep respect both to the once lost voices of African Americans and to the newly emerging voices of her students. Our community conversations are deeply enriched by her presence.