“The study of literature remains at the very heart of a liberal arts education.”
Martha Billips compares her job as a mentor for Transylvania students to the daunting task she faced several years ago teaching her teenage children how to drive. Both involve teaching a number of complex tasks that require thoughtful coordination. Students who successfully master the tasks will gain a key to a secure future. The confidence they earn with that mastery will lead to highly desired independence.
The scariest part for the instructor is finally relinquishing the wheel, bestowing full confidence in the students’ ability to find their own way. Are they ready? Did you teach them everything they need to know? Are their skills sharp enough for them to succeed?
In 2012 Billips assumed the position of associate dean for first-year academic programs and advising. In that role, Billips has many opportunities to guide students new to the art of higher learning. Her job is to construct a method for teaching the complex tasks a first-year student must master. She then can help the students coordinate the multiple demands placed on them in their new environment.
As part of that first-year program, Billips wants to clearly establish the expectations of a liberal arts curriculum and introduce students to the interdisciplinary study such a curriculum embraces. She wants them to understand the complexities of any serious academic pursuit and develop the skills necessary to navigate any obstacles successfully. And Billips knows that chief among the crucial skills at the foundation of a liberal arts course of study is the ability to read and to write—skills one sharpens by studying literature.
Even with her new role, Billips will continue to teach at least one class each year. Whether she's teaching first-year students or English majors, Billips says, "the text remains central. Close engagement with and explication of selected passages helps students understand the particular dynamics of literary works—fiction, poetry, and drama—and how they differ from other kinds of writing. In class discussions and exercises, I continually draw the students back to the texts."
Billips has found she can frequently rely on her students to provide insight into her own research, which typically centers around one of the titans of Appalachian literature: Harriett Simpson Arnow, James Still, or Lee Smith. When that happens, she knows the Transylvania faculty have succeeded in nurturing the students’ “ability to take the wheel of their own educations.” They have demonstrated the critical thinking and the sound judgment necessary for academic success.
“Conversations with students always enrich my research, even in informal ways. Students model for me the kind of intellectual curiosity crucial for productive scholarly research.”