Johnston Teaching Excellence Awards: The awards were created in 1991 to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching. Winners are nominated by Johnston Scholars and selected by a special committee of scholars in the James M. Johnston Scholarship Program. Two winners will receive $5,000 and a framed citation.
Teaching Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Faculty member since 2011
Hometown Amherst, Massachusetts
Excerpt from award citation:
“My life and career options have taken a direct 180 because of Professor Lithgow and this project she assisted me on. My undergraduate career and life would not be the same without her.”
Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
Kim Benston, one of my English professors as an undergraduate at Haverford College, because he treated his students’ ideas as seriously as he would a colleague’s, and because he created incredible conversations in class. Literary history sounds like a dry topic, but Professor Benston made it a revelation. I remember being so inspired by the discussion he led of one particular Renaissance play that I went home and wrote an unassigned essay about it just so I could get all the exciting ideas from that conversation to stop buzzing around in my head enough to be able to eat my dinner! When he graded our essays, in addition to giving every student more than a page of single-spaced typed comments, he would also write a collective comment for the entire class, explaining how everyone’s different approaches to the assignment or text at hand had related to everyone else’s and helping us recognize ourselves not just as students in a class, but as a community of scholars. He was genuinely interested in what his students had to teach him and convinced us he was learning from us and not just the other way around. I still use an assignment from his class in my own teaching (he gave me permission!), and I think of him and try to emulate him in my classroom and responses to students every single day.
What is something you’ve learned from your students?
My students have taught me to value the unique lens that everyone’s individual experience gives them on literature and the world around them, and never to make assumptions about how a given experience will shape a person’s point of view.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
As a member of the varsity equestrian team at Oxford, I once rode a mule to victory.
What does it take to be a good professor in 2020?
A good professor in 2020 needs to help her students engage, respectfully and enthusiastically, with ideas and experiences that are utterly different from their own. A good professor should listen carefully, thoughtfully, empathetically and critically before speaking, and teach her students to do the same.
What’s the most creative thing you’ve done to engage your students?
At the end of the semester, I often have students “pack a suitcase” of the most valuable quotes, ideas and moments of discussion from class. I ask: what from this class do you most want to hold onto and why? What will you take away from this class after the semester is over? I used to literally bring a briefcase to class and have them put hard copies of their contributions into it; now, it’s a photograph of a suitcase at the top of a GoogleDoc so that everyone can comment on and respond to everyone else’s contributions. Either way, the students’ explanations of their choices are often among the most important lessons of the class — for all of us.