Professors Ellis, Young, Cocks, and Coleman Honored with Mount Holyoke Faculty Awards

 

 

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(Left to right) Donal O'Shea, Joseph Ellis, Elizabeth Young, Joan Cocks, James Coleman, and President Joanne Creighton at the faculty awards ceremony March 29.

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(Right to left) Award-winner Joan Cocks with Sally Montgomery and Donal O'Shea.

Last Wednesday, March 29, MHC faculty members came out in force to join President Joanne Creighton, Dean of the Faculty Donal O'Shea, and other members of the MHC community in paying tribute to the virtuoso teaching and scholarship of four of their colleagues at a ceremony held in the library's Stimson Room.

During the event, Joan Cocks, professor of politics and chair of the Critical Social Thought Program, and James Coleman, professor of dance, each received a Mount Holyoke College Faculty Prize for Teaching. Joseph Ellis, Ford Foundation Professor of History, and Elizabeth Young, associate professor of English and chair of film studies, both were given a Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Prize for Scholarship. The four professors received citations and checks for $2,500.

In her introductory remarks, President Creighton noted, "We are celebrating four accomplished individuals, but we are also celebrating all of you scholar/teachers who are the heart and soul of this College, who make MHC such a vibrant educational community. We admire your energy, your ambition, your intellectual curiosity, your pedagogical creativity, your commitment to going on all barrels, as scholars, as artists, as teachers, as citizens and leaders of this College and of the community."

The awardees were selected through a comprehensive nomination and review process coordinated by the Faculty Awards Committee, which is composed of Donal O'Shea and retired faculty members Robert and Eugenia Herbert, Sally Montgomery, and Marilyn Pryor. Faculty nominated their peers for the scholarship awards, while alumnae and faculty nominated professors for teaching honors. Committee members read nominees' scholarly works and reviewed teaching evaluations and student comments before arriving at their decisions.

Said Montgomery at the ceremony, "In one way our assignment was enormously easy. It is simple to identify faculty members whose teaching and scholarship deserve celebration. But there is a flip side. With so much excellence it is almost impossible to decide to whom to turn first. Moreover, comparisons are very difficult when outstanding teaching takes many forms, and creative scholarship is demonstrated in myriad ways. This diversity of expression is, indeed, an essential part of the richness of working and studying here."

The teaching and scholarship awards, given for the first time this year, were made possible by gifts from members of the MHC board of trustees. The donor of the teaching award wishes to remain anonymous. Trustee Janet Hickey Tague '66 endowed the scholarship award in honor of Meribeth E. Cameron, professor emeritus of history and former acting president and dean of the faculty at MHC. Cameron taught at the College from 1948 to 1970, also serving as academic dean and, on a number of occasions, as acting president of the College. Tague, who took a class in Chinese history with Cameron, remembers her as "a formidable intellectual presence on campus."

"When I learned of Dean Cameron's death in 1997," said Tague, "I wanted to do something to recognize her and to celebrate the centrality of faculty excellence to the College's mission. What better way to do that than through establishing this prize fund in her honor?"

Faculty Award Citations

JOAN COCKS

FACAward10.FLTeachers imagine an academic utopia in which students eagerly press beyond their present envelope of understanding and willingly take risks with the unknown; intellectual engagement between students and professors is founded in mutual respect; ideas are expressed freely and openly; and each idea is judged on its own merits without judgment of the person expressing the idea. Students are liberated to think and ask about questions they had never considered and achieve deeper levels of analysis and understanding. Difficult and impenetrable literature by obscure writers is read by all students, not because they want good grades, but because they are inspired by the teacher to do so, and because they want to be prepared so that the class will go well.

Such a learning environment may actually exist, for these are phrases used by students to describe classes with Joan Cocks. Joan is an artist at facilitating classroom discussion. Hers is an art founded on hard work, a lively and creative intelligence, and a passion for the subject. Students tell us she is a listener who finds value in what they have to say and integrates their contributions into discussions, enriching and expanding the discussion without intruding on the overall plan for the course. As one said, "She can take my tangled masses of questions, untangle them, wrap them up neatly, and present my ideas back to me in an organized fashion that makes it seem as though I was thinking that all along."

Complex ideas are translated by Joan into simple language, but the ideas themselves are not simplified, and "challenging" is the watchword for her courses. She challenges students to question and analyze positions, philosophies, and theories that they at first do not understand, and with which they may disagree. Her detailed, thought-provoking criticism demands clarity,focus, and critical analysis in their writing, yet she always finds some redeeming feature even in the worst of papers. Students are also challenged to translate political theory into social action by confronting current campus and local political and social issues.

Joan's own work provides a standard against which students might measure the extent to which they have met these challenges. Marx, Hegel, Luxemburg, Arendt, Nietzsche, Nairn, and others have been subjected to her critical eye, and her analysis of embedded contradictions in their language has provided new insights into the thinking underlying their philosophies and political theories. Colleagues praise the elegance and clarity of her explications--her ability to turn a phrase, to choose the right word, to be a writer. Critical social thought may be an abstract concept to most of us, but we see it in action in Joan's writings, where contemporary political theory is placed into the context of moral and philosophical principles, enlightened by considerations of cultural and ethnic struggles, and becomes a call to political and social action.

To her students Joan is a memorable teacher. One student sums it up with passion: "I only wish I had been able to take more classes with her. It frightens me to think that I might have missed out on such an experience." To her colleagues, Joan's rare blend of scholar, teacher, mentor, friend, exemplifies teaching at its best.

 

JAMES COLEMAN

FacAward02.tif.FLDuring interviews with colleagues in all the arts about possible candidates for teaching awards, Jim Coleman's name came up more often than any other. Both Jim and his partner Terese Freedman are cited repeatedly by professional dancers and colleagues elsewhere as models for college teachers of dance, and both are credited with giving national stature to the dance programs at Mount Holyoke and the Five Colleges. There is little precedent for a dance company functioning as teachers who incorporate advanced students in their professional tours. They teach by the example of their own professionalism while stressing issues of reactive performance rather than inculcating a set of predetermined recipes. Their success as teachers stems from their sensitivity to an environment of women dancers, encouraging independent creativity as well as solidarity--a sense of "company"--in the framework of the intimacy and physicality of dance movement and its complex kinesthetic interactions.

Yet Jim and Terese would wish to be seen also as individuals, and it's Jim's concern for relating dance to the other arts and humanities that's so consistently praised. Many of us remember his role as member of the PEW-funded seminar that explored how the several arts could function in a liberal arts curriculum. The course sponsored by this seminar, "Doing It: Creativity, Performance, and the Liberal Arts" helped elevate the role of dance on this campus, already transformed by the creative examples and teaching of both Terese and Jim. Memorable works, making use of the campus itself, made us hope for more such performances.

Jim's role in the Five College Dance Department has been remarked upon by both students and faculty at the other colleges. Faculty have been especially taken by his encouraging junior colleagues in the Five College program to improve their teaching. Together with Terese Freedman, Jim is praised by other professionals for the reciprocity of performance and teaching, a rare enough phenomenon that it inspires special praise. We learn from student evaluations that Jim's courses stress choreography, modern dance techniques, contemporary dance history and aesthetics, and philosophical issues. Very favorable from the beginning in 1983, the evaluations have grown even stronger with the years. To their own surprise, students are engaged by Jim's insistence upon the history, theory, and esthetics of dance. (They may not know that for his B.A., Jim majored in anthropol ogy and minored in philosophy.) Some students say that despite the journals he makes them keep, and all the reading he requires, they are better dancers because they now understand how intellect and experience work together in the dance. One Five College student writes that she is --with apparent wonder--"beginning to look at dance on a more active intellectual level." Students also remark on Jim's memorable teaching. One writes: "The fact that he's so passionate about his work means a lot to me. He reminds me of the professor in the movie, Dead Poet's Society." And another writes: "What has changed for me [is] to see others change their views of dance." To have this kind of effect on his students makes Jim Coleman indeed a model teacher.

ELIZABETH YOUNG

Fac Award01.tif.FLElizabeth Young came to Mount Holyoke as one of the most promising scholars of her generation, a rising star in the firmament of both American studies and women's studies. She has more than fulfilled that promise with a series of dazzling articles and the publication this winter of her book, Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War.

Elizabeth's research defies neat pigeonholes. She moves with confidence, indeed brilliance, from literature to history, feminist theory to film. She is at home with the canon and with the anti-canon, with Frankenstein and Frankenhook. She is not afraid to introduce wit into serious discussions or to take popular culture seriously. What's more, she writes with a style that excites pen envy in her peers. How many of her colleagues secretly wish they had come up with titles like "The Rhett and the Black" or "A Wound of One's Own"? As an ailing referee wrote in delight: "Reading her work became a kind of tonic for me that pulled me out of my prescription-induced stupor. Antibiotics put me to sleep: Elizabeth Young woke me up." And she added apropos of her book manuscript, "There is, quite literally, never a dull moment." One has barely digested the remarkable insights in one sequence before she is on to the next round of "astonishing ideas." Others agree that Elizabeth is already such a master stylist that it is hard to believe this is a first book. It is, they concur, an instant landmark in the field. No wonder a half dozen presses competed for the right to publish it! What peers especially single out is Elizabeth's uncanny ability to bring new insights to familiar texts such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind, as well as to bring them into dialogue with little or unknown texts. In the words of one, "she offers brilliantly elucidating 'first readings' of historical figures and texts that have received little or no attention, but she also unreads and rereads the always-read." She also has the extraordinary ability to interweave her literary criticism with an abundance of historical detail that sets old texts in new context-to "bounce" the fictions of her texts "off the 'facts' of the historical moment."

 

Elizabeth's work also marks a milestone in feminist literary criticism. Her tour de force in taking Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin as a metaphor for the topsy-turviness of women's writing characterizes her own relation to the tradition of women's literary criticism: she contributes to the tradition all the while turning it inside out and upside down. Much as Young is versed in theory, she avoids both the jargon that has often blighted the field and the tedious debates that have often bogged down feminist discussions of the body and various strategies of subversion.

Another aspect of Elizabeth's research and writing that has won praise is her ability to weave both race and gender into her narrative of women's writing. The same holds for her film criticism, where she also shows a mastery of queer theory. How many literary scholars can move so effortlessly from the written word to the screen, from Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Iola Leroy, and Elizabeth Keckley to The Birth of a Nation and The Silence of the Lambs and the Bride of Frankenstein? Elizabeth's two published essays on film have already established her as one of the leading theorists of film. Her book in progress, Women and Other Horrors: Film, Feminism, Frankenstein, she sees as complementing Disarming the Nation in that it is a "study of the interconnections among gender, race, and sexuality in American culture and in feminist theory."

Many of Elizabeth Young's students may be disgruntled that we have chosen her for the research rather than the teaching award. Perhaps foremost among the qualities they praise in her teaching is an "awesome" ability to bring them into the conversation, making them feel they have more brilliant things to say about the texts than they ever imagined. If her writers could talk, they might say the same thing--that she has found a richness in their work that even they didn't know was there.

JOSEPH ELLIS

FACAward8.FLJoe Ellis has been a star, our star, from the time he came to Mount Holyoke in 1972. Joe now has five books, not counting edited volumes and a book in press.

His first book, The New England Mind in Transition, is a biography of Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, whose career was long and complex. Joe was particularly interested in Johnson's intellectual life, which was rich and somewhat bizarre at the end. Critics hailed the book as a highly imaginative analysis of the intricate relationship between Puritanism and eighteenth-century rationalism. That book also signaled Joe's abiding interest in the intellectual world that brought on the new Republic in the latter third of the eighteenth century.

Joe's next book, School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms, written with Robert Moore, examines in-depth the unique social, intellectual, and institutional experience of West Point in the first seventy years of the twentieth century, an experience that froze the educational program in some absurd ways. Joe, however, explores not so much West Point's absurdities as its ambiguities and the power of those ambiguities. Knowing the role that Joe has played in the College over nearly twenty five years, including a decade as Dean, one cannot help but notice his awareness that institutions are organic, human artifacts that can get derailed and that are accessible to individuals. One sees also the intellectual roots of Joe's horror of parochialism and his insistence that Mount Holyoke face into the world.

The third book is a collection of essays on a variety of figures in the early national period. This book brings together Joe the intellectual historian with Joe the commentator on broad themes in American life and thought. One of his reviewers captures it well in saying that Joe wants not only to be a responsible scholar, but also to help shape the world of which he is a part.

Joe's fourth and fifth books Passionate Sage: the Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, merit much--but need little--comment. They are quite simply spectacular. They testify to the notion that historians, like wine, get better and deeper and more complex as they mature. Both books are accessible to a general readership, yet thoroughly scholarly; both shed new light on subjects who had received much study. In the words of a revered historian: "[Joe] has a dazzling imagination, always responsibly exercised, that finds more in the documentary evidence than most manage to discover. Unlike many intellectual historians, he does not venture into the rarified upper atmospheres of philosophical speculation without having first constructed a firm evidentiary foundation." Others praise how Joe roots his work in an awareness of social history and cite his contempt for "corridor history": the grand history that people talk about in hallways but cannot accomplish in practice because the evidence is not there. No one can read much of Joe's work, or listen to him, without noting the grace and economy of his writing and speaking: few characterizations capture so much in two words as Passionate Sage or American Sphinx.

Joe's books are only a part of his work. He has journal articles, has edited a number of other books, and is out there in the media. He is a superb teacher and a gifted lecturer. He was fascinated by different pedagogies well before it was fashionable. One of his colleagues writes that Joe "is a person endowed with enormous drive and self-discipline: there are very few days --even during the fishing season--when he is not writing, or correcting papers, or preparing for class by 7 am. Far from draining him, this boundless, inexhaustible energy infuses everything he does"--and is.

photographs by Fred LeBlanc

 


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