By Mark Shuman
Two faculty members of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department have been named recipients of the 2010 Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Maria Rosa Olivera-Williams, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Latin American Studies Program, and Catherine Perry, associate professor of French, were among 20 Joyce Award winners selected from across campus. The awards honor faculty who create environments that stimulate significant student learning, elevate students to a new level of intellectual engagement, and foster students’ ability to express themselves effectively within their disciplines.
“I was really touched and moved,” Olivera-Williams says, “because the students are the ones who nominated me, and this feels as if they’re saying, ‘Good! Full speed ahead,’ which is the kind of encouragement that gives any teacher energy.”
Olivera-Williams knows well how much teachers can do to spark passionate inquiry while nurturing personal connections with students. She first arrived in the Midwest as a 14-year-old exchange student from Uruguay during a time in her home country that Olivera-Williams calls a “wilderness” for intellectuals. She then stayed in the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Toledo and post-graduate degrees at Ohio State University.
An expert on literature of South America’s “Southern Cone,” which includes Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, Olivera-Williams specializes in the work of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, whom she describes as a feminist, Catholic, naturalist, and teacher. Mistral was also the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945.
Olivera-Williams believes that Mistral’s life can be a model for students today. “There are so many Mistrals in one, but we’re all many things” she says. “So it’s my responsibility to push those young minds to get at something that is their passion.”
Fellow Joyce Award winner Catherine Perry also believes human beings transcend cultural differences by sharing universal values. The arts, including literature, offer an important portal to this understanding, says Perry, whose academic interests include contemporary authors of Muslim origin who write in French and French women writers from the early twentieth century to the present. Perry is also an expert on Marcel Proust.
“Proust is so incredibly human at every level,” she says. “He’s wonderfully profound and humorous, but you can’t be hyperactive while reading him. You need to settle in for a meditative and contemplative activity.”
Perry grew up in Lausanne, Switzerland, before moving to Rabat, Morocco, where she lived for 10 years. Perry went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University.
Exploring connections to other people and eras while helping students see how literature relates to them is a keystone of teaching, Perry says. “I see myself as someone who helps students develop knowledge to speak and write in French and to develop themselves as thinking and creative people,” she says. “Classes are relaxed. There’s not much lecture, but more interaction with students.”
While areas of specialty and teaching styles may differ, says Vice President and Associate Provost Dennis C. Jacobs, Joyce Award winners “are highly dedicated to undergraduates, often make themselves available outside the classroom, and always show a deep commitment to the learning, well-being and intellectual development of the students.”
Jacobs himself won the Kaneb Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, the Joyce’s predecessor. He oversaw a recent refinement of the award that included changing its name and halving the number of annual winners. Funding for the program also was established through an endowment set up by admirers of Father Edmund Joyce, a former University vice president.
Students or faculty members can nominate an extraordinary instructor for a Joyce Award. The award winners are chosen from among the nominees by faculty within seven segments of the university, including business, engineering, fine arts and architecture, humanities, language and literature, science, and social sciences. Selection committees within each area review and recommend nominees.
Students and colleagues recognized Perry and Olivera-Williams as excellent teachers long before their nominations for the 2010 Joyce Awards. Olivera-Williams received Kaneb Awards in 1999 and 2005, and Perry won the honor in 2003.