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March 20, 2008

Dreyer-Lude, Oaks discuss Bellet-winning teaching techniques

Two faculty members have been named winners of the 2008 Tina and David Bellet Arts and Sciences Teaching Excellence Award.

Melanie Dreyer-Lude, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts, and Jeffrey Oaks, lecturer in the Department of English, are this year’s winners.

The Bellet teaching awards were established in 1998 with a $200,000 donation from School of Arts and Sciences alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina, to recognize outstanding and innovative undergraduate teaching in Arts and Sciences.

Candidates must have at least three nominators, who are asked to address the following criteria:

• How the candidate communicates subject matter to undergraduate students of varied backgrounds and skill levels;

• How the candidate encourages high standards of attainment for all undergraduate students;

• How the candidate advises and mentors students, as well as expands undergraduate students’ intellectual development beyond the classroom;

• How the candidate has influenced undergraduate students, colleagues or departmental instruction, and

• How the candidate has integrated scholarship with teaching.

Both award recipients will receive a cash prize of $5,000. Winners will be honored at a dinner April 9.

Melanie Dreyer-Lude started as a lecturer at Pitt in 2000, coming from Northwestern University where she earned her MFA in directing. She also holds an MA in dramatic literature from Washington University and a BA in theatre and music (cum laude) from the University of Denver.

She was named assistant professor at Pitt in 2003. Dreyer-Lude also serves as the theatre arts department’s head of performance and director of the MFA in performance pedagogy program. She has taught acting courses at all undergraduate levels, as well as Voice and Movement, Introduction to Musical Theatre, How to Audition and introductory directing courses.

In the letter from the Arts and Science dean’s office she received for winning the award, Dreyer-Lude was praised for her “record of undergraduate teaching and the many contributions … to the quality of instruction in the School of Arts and Sciences. Clearly, you have touched the lives of many here at this University.”

“I was very excited to win this award and I felt honored,” Dreyer-Lude told the University Times. “I think it also is a win for my students. They sent supporting materials and they’ve been rooting for me.”

Dreyer-Lude described her teaching style as one that emphasizes personal feedback, which is an integral function of learning acting and other theatre arts. Her classes nearly always have small teacher-student ratios, which creates an intimate atmosphere.

“I don’t see students as coming to class just so I can tell them what to do,” she said. “What I mean by intimate is I see being a student as a stage of life where particularly undergraduates are learning to be adults and reaching new levels of maturity and developing a personality.”

She said students have other courses to juggle and family and social lives beyond the classroom, and teachers should recognize that. “Students want to see teachers as human beings who also have families and worries,” Dreyer-Lude said. “So, I encourage them to seek my advice or just to come and talk. I even put that in the syllabus.”

Sometimes she is able to help a student work through a problem, sometimes she suggests outside counseling and sometimes she tells the student to work through the problem on his or her own, she said.

Relating to students as developing human beings allows teachers to help instill in them a lifelong concept, she said: “That is, the idea that they are students of life, not students of a subject. We are teaching them to self-actualize and to recognize their own gifts. It is in that recognition of who they are that they find out what they have to contribute to society.”

To get students to open up requires developing trust, especially for new students, she noted. “Because I teach mostly upper-level acting classes, about 80 percent of my students are repeaters. For the 20 percent who are new, I try to go out of my way to give them attention and make them feel welcome into the group.”

She also encourages email, she said, “because all of us are busy, and I want to some extent to embrace the technological consciousness of my students. I use Blackboard whenever I can. But I still keep lots of office hours for chatting face to face.”

Dreyer-Lude came to teaching fairly late, first acting and later directing. “I started acting when I was 14. I was very shy and was going through what all adolescent girls go through, and this became a way to overcome that shyness and awkwardness,” she said.

“I think as an actor I was kind of a pain for directors. I wanted to know everything about the play and the playwright and the context of the play, not just about my own part. Then I realized that directing was a perfect outlet for that, because the director is the one who really needs to know everything. Then, through my role as a director, teaching acting came naturally to me, they kind of came together, and I really got involved with teaching, which I love to do.”

Unlike some of her colleagues, Dreyer-Lude believes that acting skills can be learned.

“Many of the skills related to acting — voice, movement, acting styles, relaxation, finding what makes a character tick — can be taught,” she said. “Of course, the more talent, the better, and the less to learn. But I think that anyone can be an actor.”

However, she discourages students from pursuing acting as a full-time profession. “I tell my students there are a lot of ways to work in the theatre other than acting, and that unless it is your passion, that you feel you must do it, you might want to avoid seeking a career in it, because you won’t succeed without that special drive.”

On the other hand, she said, learning acting techniques has all kinds of applications in the world outside the theatre, including public relations, presentation skills — essentially, anything that involves communication. “I tell my students that acting is a way to find your voice, to express yourself,” she said.

In addition to her involvement directing Pitt performances, Dreyer-Lude has numerous professional acting and directing credits and is an accomplished translator of German text into English, earning several grants for bilingual projects.

She is a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists and Actors Equity Association.

Jeffrey Oaks earned his MFA at Pitt in 1990 and that year joined the faculty as an instructor. He earned his BA at SUNY-Binghamton, and did graduate work in poetry at the University of Montana-Missoula.

From 1997 to 1999 he served as the assistant director of Pitt’s Writing Center. Since 1999, Oaks has been the managing director of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, coordinating some 10 readings a year. He also has been the faculty adviser to the Poetry Club, an undergraduate literary group.

Oaks has taught all levels of undergraduate courses from basic, general and critical writing to introductory and advanced poetry. More recently, he has designed and taught three courses, Poetic Forms, The Writer’s Journal and Advanced Poetry.

The A&S dean’s office praised Oaks for “the high quality of your teaching dossier and the strong letters submitted by your colleagues and students [which] attest to your success as a teacher.”

Regarding the Bellet award, Oaks told the University Times, “We do so much talking among ourselves about teaching in this department, and I was overjoyed to be recognized in this way. It’s a kind of acknowledgment that justifies all the hard work.”

Oaks said he prepares for teaching by gathering as much information as possible in the subject area.

“I imagine my students are interested in the subject or at least will become interested once a course gets going,” he said. “What I want to do is encourage questions and then be able to answer them, so in that sense I see teaching as a dialogue with a friend with a common interest; that’s the closest metaphor I can think of.”

Oaks said a major challenge in teaching is to disabuse students of the notion that they already have mastered writing, particularly in the lower-level courses where students may believe that good writing is easy.

“They often have a history of being praised for writing anything, so sometimes they get mad at you for suggesting something different. But, at the same time, my being critical also means I’m paying attention to them and they appreciate that.”

He acknowledged that teaching was never on his list of career options until graduate school.

“I had a lot of great teachers, and I admired them. But I never intended to be a teacher myself. I was very shy as a kid. I thought I was going to go out and be a writer. I read a lot of fantasy novels, so initially I gravitated toward fiction. I always fantasized that I would write one great novel and then live off the earnings of that for the rest of my life,” Oaks said.

An incident in high school turned his attention to the genre of poetry, he said.

“A high school teacher herded me and few other writer-types to hear two speakers reading from their work and then have a follow-up discussion. I assumed I would go with the fiction writer, but he was so boring! But the poet was magnificent. I had never in my life seen anyone so happy with what she was doing. So I ended up in her discussion group and I developed an appreciation for poetry right there. Of course, I had no idea how difficult it was. In fact my whole career can be described as being blind to how hard things were.”

Oaks came from a working-class family in upstate New York, where his father owned a sand and gravel company and his mother was a secretary/bookkeeper.

“So, I also was influenced strongly by economic need. When I came to Pitt for my MFA I knew I had to take a teaching assistantship. I didn’t want to teach. In fact, I was scared to death,” he said.

“My first year teaching was absolutely miserable. I had always believed that if you’re a teacher you had to be in total control of your classroom. That led to a kind of paralysis. I literally had a bottle of Pepto-Bismol that I would take shots of before I had to teach. I was nervous; I didn’t know how I’d react if I got asked a question. Maybe I would break down and cry. It was terrible.”

But, he said, Pitt has a strong teacher training program and his fellow graduate students were supportive of each other.

“So, it got easier and I got much more comfortable about control,” Oaks said. “About the third year, I started teaching creative writing, which I have some expertise in, and students seemed more happy to be in the class, because it wasn’t a requirement. It wasn’t like teaching comp where students often hate just being there,” he said.

Oaks said there are two courses in particular he loves to teach, The Writer’s Journal and Poetic Forms. “The Writer’s Journal is all about the process of writing,” Oaks said. “I require students to fill three pages of a notebook every day. That’s a lot, but I believe if you’re a writer, you should write. At the end of the semester I flip through the notebooks, not really critically. I look for output.”

The other assignments are more traditional, such as writing analysis papers on readings from published journals and diaries, and doing a final project based on some themes in their notebooks. The students choose the genre: fiction, non-fiction or poetry.

“Most students choose to write fiction, but the beauty of the class is that all kinds of writers get to talk with each other no matter the genre. That doesn’t happen in most other courses and, because of that, the department decided that the course should be part of the regular sequence for majors,” Oaks said.

Another course Oaks developed is Poetic Forms, now a fixture in the poetry writing curriculum. “It used to be a poetry workshop class. I built on that. I found that even talented writers did not know much about poetic form, like line breaks, meter, syllabics. What they find out is how useful it can be to work against restraints of a form, how it can sharpen your writing,” he said.

Oaks also emphasizes the connection between careful reading and good writing. “I believe in it strongly, but I’m always amazed at the how mysterious that relationship is. If you make a reading assignment, every person in the class will find something particular to them. I’ve also taught them that if you don’t like what you read, attack it. Don’t assume you have to support every reading assignment. It forces them to take a personal viewpoint and be able to defend it. That’s what good critical writing is.”

Oaks’s experience as the assistant director of the Writing Center (1997-99) informs his teaching immensely, he said. “I’ll give you an example. I was tutoring a kid who was terrified at an assignment to write an analysis of some passage. He had acute writing anxiety. But when we reviewed what he’d done, it became obvious to me he didn’t understand what analyzing meant. He thought it meant paraphrasing. Once I explained that, he got it, and was much more comfortable. Sometimes it’s the very small things that can make an important difference.”

Oaks praised the high quality of Pitt undergraduates, noting “that undergrads at Pitt are full of enthusiasm and energy, even when they should be tired from taking five classes and working 20 hours a week. I really love the students here.”

In addition to his work at Pitt, Oaks has published two poetry chapbooks, about 20 poems and a half-dozen papers on teaching writing. Since 1991 he has served as a writer-in-residence at the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, where he advises teachers on how to run creative writing workshops for elementary and middle school students.

—Peter Hart

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