Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006
Celia Barnes Rasmussen
Lieber Memorial Teaching Associate Award
Doctoral Student in English
Indiana University Bloomington
B.A., The College of William and Mary, 1998
M.A., Indiana University Bloomington, 2003
Celia Barnes Rasmussen used to spend a lot of time wondering if she was a good teacher, but very little time wondering what was good teaching.
In fact, her first steps toward effective teaching were more accidental than methodical. She sensed her students in her Elementary Composition course were bored, so she added variety to her lessons. The change, however, did more than merely spark student interest: her students were actually more engaged with the material. She wanted to know why.
Rasmussen hesitates to call this an epiphany: "If you asked me why or if variety mattered as a part of a philosophy of teaching, I certainly would have been at a loss to answer. Routine lesson plans just seemed to bore students."
But like the first move that topples a line of dominoes, that simple experiment kick-started pedagogical research and reflection, and shifted Rasmussen's focus from how she taught to how her students learned. Whether teaching writing to first-generation college students or literature to established student scholars, Rasmussen now employs multiple modes of learning — individual and collaborative, theoretical and hands-on, written and oral — to help her reach each student.
"For me teaching is not about sustaining general student interest," says Rasmussen, "rather it is about interacting with individual students to sustain complex thought."
Her students feel the difference. They consistently cite her availability and dedication among her teaching strengths, describing her, sometimes even in the same sentence, as "generous" and "tough." And few of her students would say that their reading, writing, and even thinking hadn't substantially improved under Rasmussen's pedagogical touch.
"Celia may be one of the only teachers I have ever had that showed such a huge interest in helping me improve," writes one student in a course evaluation. "I achieved goals that I set for myself and even [reached] goals I didn't expect to have."
Because she teaches mostly freshman composition, Rasmussen has become a kind of university ambassador for many incoming freshmen, helping them prepare for and navigate through college life. Rasmussen embraces the role.
In the first week of her freshman composition classes, she distributes what she calls "Celia's Top Ten Keys for Success in College (or, How to Do More than just 'Get By')." She encourages frequent visits to professors' office hours, effective time management, and active reading. Her three Rs: respect your teachers and classmates, take risks, and take responsibility.
"Many students do not want to own up to their own intellectual maturity," says Rasmussen. "It is my responsibility, therefore, to ensure their stake in their higher education."
Often, these lessons make the difference for her students, many of whom, because they are first-generation college students or lack basic writing skills, are unaware or unprepared for the demands of college. One student writes: "I'm very proud to have Celia as my instructor. I learned writing and reading skills, but the best thing I learned is a life lesson: we are adults, responsible for everything."
Rasmussen's passion for teaching and learning extends beyond her classroom. As assistant director for Elementary Composition, she supervises and mentors nine first-year composition instructors, helping them, as she has numerous students, find their voice in their classrooms. Modeled closely on her own classroom strategies and what used to be an accidental evolution as an instructor, her teaching of teachers encourages them to deliberately reflect on how and why they teach and how their students learn.
Even in these encounters, Rasmussen practices what she teaches. During their weekly meetings, she questions, reflects, and improves on her own teaching. Moreover, she's come to realize that teaching and learning are deeply integrated processes that "overlap, intersect, and interact."
"I suppose what I find so rewarding about teaching (and even teaching teaching) is that, if all goes well, every student can have something to teach me as well as something to learn," she says.
Being open to the lessons her students bring into her class allows her students to remain open to what she has to offer. That reciprocity in the classroom earns Rasmussen possibly the greatest of teaching accomplishments: the ability not just to change but to change expectations. Writes a former student: "For the first time ever, I love coming to English."