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.
Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Kenan Fellow, and Director of Film Studies
Faculty member since 2011
Hometown Somerset, Kentucky
Excerpt from award citation:
“I was so engaged and interested because he made the material engaging with his teaching style and approach.”
Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
Matthew Bernstein, at Emory University when I was earning my Master of Arts in film studies. His energy was infectious, his knowledge of cinema history was copious, he made us better writers, and he took pains to arrange exciting extracurricular events — film series, visiting speakers, amazing Oscars parties and so forth. He was also the first professor I had who really modeled for me the joys and responsibilities of being a teacher, scholar, advisor and administrator all at once. I had remarkable teachers in my doctoral program as well, but without Matthew I wouldn’t have gotten there.
What is something you’ve learned from your students?
I learn from students every week. When we dissect films together, they continually surprise me — and enlighten me — with their observations and questions. They productively allow me to factor in multiple points of view and experiences. It’s so rewarding to see how a discussion with contrasts and tensions can result in nuanced ways of thinking that eventually inform their papers.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Growing up, I was an athlete who cared about basketball more than just about anything else. In college, I majored in English with a focus on creative writing but didn’t decide on a career path until I was in my mid-20s, after some necessary trial and error. I tell students this story when they’re feeling the intense pressure of finding their dream job straight out of college.
What does it take to be a good professor in 2020?
It’s increasingly apparent to me that I’m not just giving students knowledge or explaining themes and narrative structures. I’m showing them how to pay close, critical attention to moving images on screens. Films aren’t just stories. They’re paintings that move, make sounds and viscerally shape our thoughts, emotions and attitudes. One of the reasons film studies is such a growing field is that it has especially vibrant ways of equipping students with audiovisual literacy in a media-saturated, multicultural world.
What’s the most creative thing you’ve done to engage your students?
In some courses I give students the option of creating an audiovisual work for their final project — a short film or video essay. They all have free access to Adobe creative tools, including editing applications, and if necessary, they can use the cameras on their phones. They still must write a traditional essay that explains their approach, but I’m an advocate for teaching, in any field, that lets students learn through creative doing. I try to teach in a way that lets critical and creative work reinforce one another.