Penny T. Gill
Citation for 2001 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching
Something magical takes place in Penny Gill's classes. But when we look at course evaluations to find the key to that magic, we often see students themselves struggling to find words to convey the unique experience of learning with Penny. Often the phrases they use are the phrases that recur in the teaching evaluations of many other fine teachers at Mount Holyoke: accessibility, concern for each student, a love of her subject, and infinite patience. On the other hand, how many professors are praised for "good crayon usage"-but then how many professors "incorporate coloring and storytelling in a class, while simultaneously explaining the difficult concepts of [Carl] Jung"? How many even tackle explorations of the unconscious along with the conscious, the political, the historical, the philosophical?
Something more is going on, however. Clearly students feel they are learning with Penny, not from Penny. What happens in a course that transforms students' ways of looking at their own lives and at the world around them? Over and over they comment on finding their own voices in her classes. One student noted that her course on Jung was the only one she had ever taken where every student participated in class. But this is just the beginning. Although no comment is ever made to seem irrelevant or wrong, "She refuses to let us slide by with blithe comments and forces us to explain ourselves." "She motivates students to learn, become engaged and to think on a level that we are rarely expected or encouraged to do at MHC." At the same time she pulls the real meaning out of their sometimes groping words. They have a sense of discovering ideas that were there all along. And whether the topic is politics or Jung or history or writing, Penny has the knack of connecting the work to students' own lives. As one student wrote: "I am the girl who sits in class and makes little cooing noises after Penny says something that affects me, something that I can apply to my life." Perhaps Penny's real secret is her rare ability to listen to both words and silences. "She always seems to know when we need to talk, when we need to listen and when we need to be silly."
This extraordinary gift of listening is something Penny's colleagues have also learned to treasure. Those of us who worked with her on the Gender in Context project in the mid-eighties had experiences startlingly similar to her students: she probed and challenged and provoked us to articulate our own ideas in ways that were revelations most of all to ourselves. The same thing happened in the series of presentations of faculty research she organized some years ago. The corps of teachers of Pasts and Presences, too, must have had the same experience of epiphanies and collegial learning as well as teaching.
Pasts and Presences, so much Penny's creation, also testifies to her refusal to be tethered to any one discipline. It is amusing to read recent evaluations which comment over and over that "Penny's heart and soul lie in teaching European politics" when those of us with longer memories know that her heart has lain in just about all the nooks and crannies of the arts and social sciences over the years. Pasts and Presences also testifies to Penny's passionate interest in pedagogy, in finding new ways to goad students into asking fundamental questions of themselves and their society while exposing them to a broad sweep of human experience. Now that she has gently guided Pasts and Presences to maturity, she has turned to re-shaping the first-year curriculum more generally, determined that every student will have the chance to try out her intellectual wings in a small seminar setting.
Of course the proper designation for Penny Gill is Mary Lyon Professor of Humanities, along with Professor of Politics. Nothing human is alien to Penny and nothing human is alien to her students.