Dr. Pauline Strong:  2006 Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award


In 2006, Dr. Pauline Turner Strong from the Folklore and Public Culture Program (part of the Anthropology Department in the College of Liberal Arts) won the award for Outstanding Teaching in the Graduate School. In this month's "Spotlight on Faculty," she talks about her teaching, research, and thoughts on the connection between higher education and the larger society. 

Connection is an idea that is deeply important to Dr. Strong. Whether between disciplines, among colleagues, or in translation from a classroom project to a public endeavor, she encourages her students to learn from the points at which different ideas meet.

Polly Strong studied philosophy in college; after graduating, she moved to New Mexico to work for an anthropologist—an experience that helped her make an informed decision about going to graduate school. "I encourage students contemplating graduate school to take some time to explore, and to realize it's possible to change fields," she says.

In 1993 she moved from the University of Missouri at St. Louis to the University of Texas so that she could participate in a graduate program. UT has been an excellent place for her to research and teach on the politics of representation—specifically how dominant groups represent subordinated peoples, especially the Native people of North America. She teaches classes ranging from "History and Culture of U.S. Youth Organizations" to "Indigenous Cultural Politics" to "Intro to Graduate Folklore & Public Culture."

Dr. Strong's teaching philosophy focuses on minimizing power relationships and on drawing from multiple disciplines, which is central to the field of Folklore and Public Culture. She believes in making connections between the classroom and the world, as well as making room for many different points of view. She encourages students to come up with final projects that have more than one audience, so that instead of feeling that they are writing for their professor, her students feel some sense of public responsibility in their work.  She is most proud of the exhibitions the students in her "Representation" seminar have created.  She observes: "Especially in a public research institution, it is important to understand and strengthen the relationship between higher education and the larger society."

Dr. Strong also encourages her students—both graduate and undergraduate—to think creatively about what exactly they love to do in their chosen field and how it can be used to multiple ends. She emphasizes the importance of making things relevant outside of academe, and of expressing knowledge in non-specialized language: she expands the definition of teaching to include training, management, anything that involves imparting knowledge and new skills to a group of people.

Dr. Strong says that one of the challenges of graduate school is that students are adults in a world that's often infantilizing. Part of her job, she feels, is to help students carve out their own expertise, as well as help them learn how to succeed as professionals. She organizes conference panels and invites her advanced graduate students to join them, and she also teaches a semester-long workshop on writing dissertation and grant proposals.

When asked what she thinks makes a good teacher of graduate students, Polly Strong answers: "Being able to challenge and support at the same time. It's a difficult balance to strike." She encourages her graduate students to focus and to work in groups as a way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the sheer amount they are expected (and expect themselves) to know. She tries not to be a dominating classroom presence, but rather a nurturing one. "But nurturing with high standards," she adds. "Because the standards of the academic and professional worlds are high."

By Elisabeth McKetta, February, 2007


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