- Lieber Memorial Teaching Associate Award (2013)
Sarah Dees wants the classes she teaches to be among the most positive experiences her students have in college. To that end, she works constantly to improve as a teacher through training, feedback, and practice, with a particular focus on helping students learn through writing. She also believes that students learn best when they are guided and encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. “I aim to strike a balance between framing important course materials and offering room within this framework for students to engage in dialogue with me and their classmates,” she says. “Sometimes the best answers are more questions, which fuel rather than satiate intellectual curiosity.”
Dees expects to complete work on her Ph.D. in 2014; her dissertation is currently titled “Religion on the Brink: The Scientific Study of Native American Religion, 1878–1903.” Her teaching reflects her interests in spiritual practices of indigenous people and religious exchanges between indigenous and non-native communities. She developed and has twice taught the course Indigenous Worldviews in the Department of Religious Studies. She also has been a discussion leader for two introductory courses, Religion and Culture and Introduction to Christianity, and for a College of Arts and Sciences topics course, Sickness and Health. Students praise Dees for her passion, the variety of approaches that she brings to teaching, and her willingness to work with them individually to cultivate their abilities as thinkers and writers. “[She] did a fantastic job!” comments one student who took Dees’ Indigenous Worldviews course last summer. “The class was highly interesting, and she did a great job fostering discussions.”
Dees traces her teaching approach to her experience as a writing consultant, a position she first held as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. She has also worked at the University of Iowa’s campus writing center, and at IU Bloomington’s Writing Tutorial Services. For Dees, the job of a peer tutor is not to edit students’ papers or tell them how to write, but to question and motivate them in order to help them better understand and carry out their writing projects. “Writing center work also emphasizes the power of writing and reflection to understand and engage in the world,” Dees says. “My research on knowledge production and scholarly representation of marginalized cultures stems in part from these discussions, and my decision to pursue graduate education reflects my hope to contribute to important conversations about social inequality.” The same approach marked Dees’ work as co-director of the Bloomington Writing Project, an off-campus organization that supports efforts by community residents of various backgrounds and interests to enrich their lives through writing. “Dees established important partnerships for the project with community entities such as Boxcar Books, the Broadview Learning Center, Middle Way House, and the Monroe County Public Library’s VITAL adult literacy program,” says Bethany Carlson, a volunteer with the writing project.
Laura Clapper, an associate instructor and writing tutor in the Department of English, visited a discussion section of Introduction to Christianity that Dees led and went away impressed by her enthusiasm and the planning and organization of the class. “The remarkably high level of participation and concentrated effort on the students’ part seems a natural response to Sarah’s own deep commitment to fostering a rigorous yet safe learning atmosphere,” she says. Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies, made similar comments after observing a class discussion section that Dees led last spring. “Sarah is comfortable in front of a classroom, is skillful in guiding small group discussions, commands respect, and generates student interest,” Brown said. “In short, Sarah is a superb teacher.”