Professors Share Their Philosophies and Practices

Sarah M. Barry with students
Professor Sarah M. Barry, far right, demonstrates movement as she teaches a modern dance class. Barry received an Outstanding Commitment to Teach Award from UA’s National Alumni Association this year.

From the 2014 Celebrating Excellence | Between teaching classes, conducting researching, sharing their work off-campus and working with students outside the classroom, professors often don’t have time to consider the impact they’re making.

For Sarah M. Barry, associate professor of dance, receiving the University’s highest honor for excellence in teaching did just that – it forced her to slow down and made her realize that she is, in fact, doing what she set out to do.

“I was so honored to receive the award because it’s such a nice acknowledgment that you’re doing the right thing,” Barry said of being named an Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award recipient for 2013, given annually by The University of Alabama National Alumni Association. “It’s nice to publicly hear that you are affecting people and touching people’s lives. Of course, all teachers hope they’re doing that, but it’s very rewarding to know that people are really learning from you, which is why we’re here in the first place.”

Dr. James McNaughton, assistant professor of English, who also received the award this year, felt similarly.

“I was delighted,” he said. “I suppose you’re always surprised. No one expects to win such recognition. What I try to do as a teacher is to keep people at the edge of their intellectual limits. I think the main thing is just taking the students seriously, listening to what they’re saying and helping them to take themselves seriously. When students have ideas, I listen to them, ask questions of their thinking and push against it to try to further it. I don’t think it’s anything unusual. I think that’s what all teachers are probably trying to do and are doing.”

Dr. James McNaughton
Dr. James McNaughton also received an Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award from UA’s National Alumni Association this year.

Barry and McNaughton follow a long line of recipients who have received the award since its inception in 1976. Giving students ownership, challenging their ideas and giving them a sense of why the curriculum matters are key components of both professors’ teaching approaches.

Barry, who teaches a wide range of dance classes, pushes students most in her choreography class, where she challenges their ideas about the purpose of dance. At the beginning of the semester, she said most dancers rely on what they already know – dance as a vehicle for performance.

“They’re just kind of making up classroom routines – things that show off how they can turn or how they can get their leg really high. They’re showing off their bodily skill,” she said.

By the end of the semester, dance becomes a vehicle for communicating messages, with dancers crafting movement around specific ideas.

To give students a sense of overarching purpose, Barry tries to weave all elements of the curriculum together, merging technique with history, anatomy and choreography.

“I try to bridge the academic side, the creative side and the technical side in every class that I teach,” she said. “I think what’s really important is making the students realize how all the classes they take are interrelated, so that the anatomy they learn in one class is something they can use while they’re dancing. Even in the dance history class, we talk about choreography and movement, and the students create choreography to embody their understanding of a choreographer. I try to find ways to make all those subject areas come together regardless of what class the students are in.”

Ownership comes in the form of the College’s pre-professional dance company Alabama Repertory Dance Theatre, or ARDT, in which students experience what it’s like to be part of a real dance company. As Barry begins choreographing a dance that students will eventually perform, she shares general ideas of theme and movement with her dancers and then asks them to improvise.

“Some student might have a really beautiful movement idea that then becomes a main aspect of the piece,” Barry said. “I enjoy the exchange with the students, so throughout the process of making the dance, the dancers actually have quite a bit of input. It becomes like a shared journey.”

McNaughton, while focused on writing and literature, has a similar line of attack. For him, teaching is about challenging students’ ideas by taking everything they say seriously, no matter whether the students meant it so or not.

“If a student has an idea—even if that idea is as immediate as finding something pleasurable—we try to explore it fully, its contradictions and its implications,” he said. “From the beginning, I make everyone know that their observations and arguments—mine as well as theirs—are open to challenge, the better to sharpen them.”

“And it’s not just about taking students seriously in the classroom. It’s also talking to students after class. One of the ways – especially at a big university – to help students see the value of education is to talk to them and just ask them what they’re doing and what they’re working on and to listen. It makes a big difference in how seriously students take themselves.”

McNaughton also helps his students find value in their education by immersing them, quite literally, in the books they read. In one of his classes – a class on James Joyce’s modern epic Ulysses, a book about blurring the lines between public and private space – McNaughton gives his students the option of taking a not-so-traditional final exam. The students have the option of participating in a “marathon reading” of the book, in which they read the book cover-to-cover, together, in a single day.

“It takes about 26 hours, and they don’t sleep,” he said. “The book itself takes place in a whole day, so this is a way to allow the students themselves to experience that.”

As the book moves throughout Dublin, so the students often move throughout Tuscaloosa. They mimic the place they are in the book as they read the book aloud at every stage, bringing the act of reading, something generally considered to be private, into the public sphere.

“The book itself is about public space,” McNaughton said. “It’s about the combination of the novel and the epic. The novel is the form of private experience, of subjectivity developing, and the epic is a public forum. Joyce brings the private increasingly into the public. By taking this book into the public, it sort of performs the same.”

McNaughton also gives the students ownership within the classroom. In a class on 20th century British and Irish poetry, each student read a book of contemporary Irish poetry and presented a selection of the poems.

“I listened to students present works of literature that have never been written about before – because the works are only a few years old,” he said. “I can remember a couple of classes in particular that were just astonishing because I learned so much from the students and their presentations of the books. One presentation changed the way I understood the poems. When a student can do that to you, it’s very special.”

Can Barry or McNaughton imagine being something other than a teacher? Only if they really, really try.

“Is unemployment an option?” McNaughton said with a laugh. “I can do other things – I worked in the business world for a while – but I love my job. I love being able to work on the ideas that I love and that I’m interested in, and to read texts and books that I love and that I’m interested in, and then to do that with other people. It’s very hard to beat that.”

Barry, who grew up in a family of teachers, also said she couldn’t imagine what else she’d be doing if she weren’t teaching.

“I would probably still be a choreographer, and certainly part of being a choreographer is teaching the people in your company,” she said.

“I can trace very specifically why I teach back to a class that I took in the eighth grade. In that class, we learned about history and anatomy and choreography and lots of different movement techniques. That was my first time to really see the academic side of dance. I enjoyed that range of ideas presented in a class so much that I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. Because it was such a revelation to me at the time, I wanted to be able to share that.

“But to see what other people do with the information is also exciting. I can present a choreographic technique to 15 students, and they’re all going have their own way to embody that for themselves. I love to share the information, but then also to see what students do with it and see how they grow and change from that.”