Zeitz's tough-love approach inspires

Professor's tremendous respect and high expectations challenge students to engage and grow as individuals

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Lisa Zeitz

A professor described as tough but fair may send slacker students out the door, but those who stay are often surprised at how much they grow as individuals.

In her 18 years teaching at Western, associate English professor Lisa Zeitz has developed exactly this reputation, while also winning the respect and admiration of her students.

For Zeitz, the decision to become a professor was easy. Her English professor at Queen’s University told the then 18-year-old undergraduate she would teach English at the university level.

Zeitz’s research and teaching focus on what she calls the incredibly rich and diverse 18th-century and Restoration period literature.

“The literature of the period is profoundly engaged with the culture in which it was produced, and a student of the period needs to be interested in virtually everything,” Zeitz says.

“The history of ideas, colonialism, empire, the rise of journalism, the literary marketplace and the opportunities it offered " especially for women " satire, politics, music, landscape gardens, novels, travel literature, sermons, science.”

Zeitz’s “Performing the Past: Restoration and 18th-Century Dramas” seminar class won her the 2006 American Society for 18th-Century Studies Innovative Course Design award.

The fourth-year course, designed by Zeitz and Nipissing University Professor Cameron McFarlane, builds on a conversation between plays of the past and present.

“The course works, I think, because it foregrounds the dialogue between past and present that is always taking place,” Zeitz says.

She quotes McFarlane, who says the course is aimed at teaching students that the past, much like a drama, isn’t static, but constantly appreciated in a new way with every version.

“Any course on Restoration and 18th-century literature " indeed, any course on any historical literary period " involves, implicitly, an attempt to bring the past to life, an attempt to set the past and its ideas, its tensions, its “drama” in motion,” Zeitz says.

For Zeitz, the most enjoyable part of teaching English is her students.

“I marvel at the quality of the work being produced by our undergraduates, especially when so many are holding down part-time jobs,” she says.

She says current undergraduate English students are better and more dedicated than their counterparts 10 years ago.

Zeitz considers teaching undergrads an enormous privilege, since she believes they’re still brimming with possibilities and are open to new ideas.

“I don’t know if undergraduates always realize what extraordinary years in their lives these are,” Zeitz says. “I don’t know if there is anything more exciting than watching young women and men learning who they are, and exploring what they think, feel and believe.

“What makes me happiest in the classroom is to see a discussion take off, and to witness the students engaging in a critical inquiry that is informed, lively and smart.”

Zeitz emphasizes the need to be clear, patient, and compassionate when teaching first-year students making the transition from high school to university.

“The best way to engage students at a more senior level is, in my opinion, to respect their ideas and to challenge them,” Zeitz says. “At the university level, students need to be given responsibility and challenging assignments.”

A former student of Zeitz wrote her a heartfelt note a few years after graduation, validating Zeitz’s assertion that a professor should expect nothing less than the best from her students:

“[In your class] I found a place to reawaken that part of my brain that generated penetrating questions,” the student wrote. “Your expectations of each member of the class…were such an inspiration…it certainly surprised me when I realized that I could no longer coast by with half-hearted efforts, and that I didn’t want to skim by anymore.”

Ultimately, Zeitz hopes her students fully realize who they are rather than becoming replicas of her. She has tremendous faith in her students and their ability to shape the world for the better.

“I’d like to hope that once they have left Western and begin to appreciate what a university ‘education’ really means, that perhaps my students would understand what the toughness was intended to achieve.”

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