Outstanding Teacher Award Remarks

I was honored to receive the 2011 Outstanding Teacher in Higher Education award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) last week at the conference in Chicago. How moved I was to see so many former students and colleagues in the audience, and to be on the podium with so many other wonderful honorees (including Doug Paterson, who won the 2011 ATHE Award for Leadership in Community-Based Theatre and Civic Engagement, and Bonnie Marranca, who won the Excellence in Editing–Sustained Achievement award). I was incredibly honored to accept the award. My brief remarks are posted below.–jd

I honestly can’t thank you enough for this honor. I’m not a deeply religious person, but it strikes me that teaching is one of the most sacred professions. We’re entrusted with minds, and lives, and bodies; people turn their faces to ours, expectantly. That trust demands reciprocity. Being a teacher, as a result, is also one of the most vulnerable professions, because if you’re really going to reciprocate, you have to bare a bit of your own soul. I’m so grateful for all the students who’ve helped my soul grow over these last 25 years.

One of the most meaningful aspects of teaching, for me, like performance itself, is how fleeting it is. On the best days, I leave a classroom on a high I rarely find elsewhere, already wishing I could recapture the heady nuances of the discoveries we just made in our fragile, hopeful, temporary learning community. But teaching is about speech, which disappears just as it’s uttered. Even those of us who take notes during class—myself included—in our efforts to archive and remember, can’t do justice to the timbre and tone, to the burning underpinnings of how we speak in our most urgent classroom conversations. That we can’t recreate them makes them that much more precious, and makes me that much more eager to try.

It’s been an unexpected pleasure, this career. But teaching is not without precedent in my family. My Uncle Mel—who’s here today—taught me the “word for the day” every day when I was a kid; I think he’s astonished at how many I’ve learned since. My mother spent her career as a kindergarten teacher. I’d visit her classroom and absorb the model of her patience and magnanimity, her hope that she could in some way open her kids’ futures as she taught them to tie their shoes. My father taught me, among other things, how to play tennis. I learned from him a generous, happy sportsmanship that I like to think is part of my own teaching.

And Stacy Wolf, my partner, entered my life as my student, but has for 22 years also been my teacher. Now, when we teach courses together, I’m so grateful for how much I continue to learn from her—about teaching, about theatre, and about the pleasure of so intensely living your life.

My classrooms structure my kinship networks. Let me thank my former student, and my friend, Ramón Rivera-Servera, who I understand organized my nomination for this award, as well as all the graduate and undergrad students I’ve taught, and all the colleagues with whom I’ve worked—at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the CUNY Graduate Center; the University of Texas at Austin; and now at Princeton. You all mean the world to me.

Let me end by saying I wish more people really understood what happens in our classrooms. I rue how the Right disparages progressive pedagogy like ours, especially when it’s grounded in art forms they also seem to despise. If they could only appreciate how passionately we feel and how rigorously we think about the theatre and performance we see and do and study. If they could only realize how cataclysmic are our new understandings, and how transformative our experiences, in our prosaic, everyday classrooms and on the magical classroom of the stage. In our teaching and our learning, we shape the possibilities of our culture.

We theatre people work in the medium of love; we rely on our hearts as well as our minds and our souls. To also love what you do and to be honored for it seems a great gift indeed. Thanks so much.

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