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Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009

Erin McNulty

The Lieber Associate Instructor Award

Doctoral Student in Hispanic Linguistics
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
College of Arts and Sciences
Indiana University Bloomington
B.A., Hillsdale College, 1990
M.A. (dual degree), Indiana University, 2005

After spending 12 years in the accounting field, Erin McNulty felt that the decision she needed to make was clear. Despite her success as an accountant, she never stopped longing for the energy and discovery that surround the university setting and, most important, the opportunity to inspire others.

"Teaching is my vocation, and it has called to me since I was first able to speak," McNulty said. As an associate instructor of Spanish, McNulty takes a subject that risks becoming tedious and overwhelming and presents it in a way that makes the language accessible to each student.

"I always like to remember and remind students why we have language -- to communicate," McNulty said. "If I can refocus students' attention to communicating rather than trying to memorize grammar rules, they start to forget the 'hard parts' and allow language to be alive and part of them."

Since McNulty began teaching in 2002, her students have consistently given her high marks as one of the university's top associate instructors, with an overall ranking of 3.7 out of 4.0 on 13 different measures. She also has received numerous awards based on feedback from both students and faculty members, including an honorable mention for the 2008 Outstanding Associate Instructor Award.

In addition to teaching first-year, second-year and third-year Spanish courses at Indiana University, McNulty served as the language coordinator for the IU summer program that teaches less commonly taught languages. In 2005, she was selected as the IU representative for the University of Seville Exchange Program. Through this program, she taught English courses in Seville, Spain.

"Ms. McNulty's experiences are not only extraordinary, but diverse in levels of teaching and roles assumed," according to faculty members in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who nominated her for the Lieber Award.

McNulty is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic linguistics specializing in second language acquisition, pedagogy and sociolinguistics, and her research explores teaching and learning strategies. Research that she conducted with James F. Lee of the University of New South Wales was presented at the annual meeting of the Australian Applied Linguistics Association in 2005 and later published as a chapter in a book.

In the classroom, McNulty creates an atmosphere where her students become comfortable expressing themselves openly without fear of making mistakes. She uses the knowledge she has gained through her research regarding the most effective means of achieving foreign language proficiency by creating lesson plans that are unique and engaging.

She also makes a point to integrate humor into her classroom by providing personal anecdotes about her family and using pop culture references to help teach challenging concepts. Students respond well to the humor. McNulty's colleague Rebecca Ronquest commented that students "knew when it was time to make jokes, and then knew when it was time to be serious and reflect on a bigger question."

McNulty believes that involving students and allowing them to co-create the class is crucial. She asks for student feedback a few weeks into the semester so that she can know how to better cater to the needs of each unique group of students, and she has been known to alter her syllabus and exam formats according to their suggestions. In her Spanish conversation class, students are required to participate in pair presentations, in which two classmates work as a team to present a controversial issue of their choosing and lead class discussion.

Evaluations by her students are overwhelmingly positive and attest to McNulty's gift for making them all feel confident in their abilities to communicate in a foreign language. As one student wrote, "Erin was extremely patient with every student. She spent quality time with each student because she saw a great Spanish speaker in each and every one of us."