My acquaintance with Dr. Betty Sawin began, literally, in a prior century. It began in 1983 when I came here as a non-trad construction worker / cowboy bumpkin with all the sophistication of Huck Finn. Between classes, I'd sometimes be sitting with other students on the hallway benches in what is now Eder Hall but was then called the SS/C Building. We'd talk about books we didn’t understand or ideas we understood even less or other frivolous topics such as art, politics, and philosophy that students once discussed before Facebook and Snapchat.
When faculty approached, we'd lower our voices and our gazes as if we feared being corrected for our naïve interpretations of anything from Aristotle to Aerosmith. Most faculty passed with the required degree of gravitas and professional distance. A few smiled with an air of professional obligation. A few offered genuine cheery greetings. A few lowered their eyes, too, to match ours, or else found focus on distant objects, like the walls.
But one tall young blonde female professor always zoomed by with an energy and sense of purpose that blasted us with the force of a speeding 18-wheeler passing bicyclists. Her hands cradling books or papers, her eyes floating over us like the shadow of a soaring eagle, she'd swoosh past with such speed that all the air seemed to part and we students, like bicyclists sucked into the after-waves of a speeding semi, would lean despite ourselves into the void left by her passing.
"Who is that lady?" I one day asked an English major who'd befriended me.
"Professor Sawin," he said. Lowering his voice he confided, "She's tough."
"I'll bet that at least she ain't boring," I said.
So, as soon as the next registration period came, I signed up for her English 210 course titled, "Sex Role Stereotypes in Literature."
So, as soon as the next registration period came, I signed up for her English 210 course titled, "Sex Role Stereotypes in Literature."
At that time I couldn't define stereotype, much less know that I epitomized one. “Literature,” to me, still included brochures they handed you at car dealerships and gun shows. But "Sex Roles," I thought I understood. My mistake. Big mistake. I was about to discover how little I knew. I was about to discover what it meant to have my own identity and values and thinking ability challenged. I was about to learn what it meant to be a man -- as experienced by women. And as experienced by other men. Or what it meant to be a woman as defined by men. To be a human. A writer. A reader. I was about to learn the tremendous role literature plays in forming empathy. And that overly energetic lady prof who always walked too fast was about to take a role in my life that she's held all the way to this day, over three decades later: mentor, teacher, and friend.
In Dr. Sawin’s lit class, she patiently corrected us hayseeds who tortured her name: (“Sawin rhymes with fawn and dawn,” she’d coolly chastise us.) But from our plebeian tongues her name sounded as if it were part of a wood-chopping tale that began, “So I sunk my saw-in the old honey locust tree down by the crick . . .” Without the slightest air of condescension, and with more tolerance for our pathetic misreading of texts than we deserved, this lady whose energy never waned conveyed a love of --- and a sensitivity for --- printed words that led many of us into our English major or else confirmed the accuracy of our choice for those of us already committed. I will always remember how she led us through intense (read: “heated”) discussions of Ibsen’s Doll House, Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” and MacBeth’s soliloquy.
As adept as Dr. Sawin was at making literature meaningful for us, she was equally adept at seeing the diamond in a chunk of coal. To me, that latter quality is what separates great teachers from good ones. At the end of that semester, Dr. Sawin invited me to join a small team of students she’d hand-picked to help with a cutting-edge project called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), which would bear her personal stamp for its entire lifespan at Western. She had personally solicited private funding from a prominent benefactor for part of her salary that brought WAC into being.
As one of her WAC interns, I was charged with helping Dr. Sawin prepare for the friendly but spirited debate with Dr. David Ashley, then a young biology professor. As a means of promoting the presence of WAC, Dr. Ashley had good-naturedly agreed to a public debate on the pros and cons of allowing class time for writing in “content-based” courses, such as the sciences. I cannot recall who “won” the debate. What mattered most to Dr. Sawin was that WAC won. She and Dr. Ashley had increased awareness of the program and helped it grow into the thriving program it became. For over a decade, our WAC program --- often dubbed “Betty’s Baby” --- drew national attention and respect as she co-authored papers and co-presented at conferences with colleagues from, literally, all across our curriculum.
The most encompassing and ambitious offspring to grow out of WAC was Outdoor Semester, a study-away program that linked five courses with intensive writing and some time off campus traveling to historic sites involving Native Americans and national conservation efforts. Although not officially labeled a “Learning Community” when Learning Communities settled on our campus by administrative mandate, the Outdoor Semester epitomized the essence of a Learning Community.
It brought national recognition to MWSU, but, moreover, it gave tangible presence to the intangible energy I’d first --- and rightly -- sensed in Dr. Sawin those times she’d zoomed by groups of us students in the hallway. Years later, when budgets shrank and administrators elected not to fund the program any longer, Dr. Sawin battled for WAC with the passion of a mother lion defending her cub. Though she lost the budget battle, she never lost her passion, and with it that passion to promote learning at the highest level. Soon her passion found a new cause to champion when she accepted the role of Director of the MWSU Honors Program.
The Honors Program carried a special meaning for me. In 1989 I was one of the first students to be graduated with Interdisciplinary Honors in the fledgling program. Afterward, I sped through an M.A. degree and began teaching at Western as Dr. Sawin’s junior colleague. Naturally, I was honored when Dr. Sawin asked me to teach a section of HON 195, the required colloquium for incoming Honors freshmen. She granted me free rein to design the course any way I chose, so long as I engaged students in critical thinking and gathered evidence (written, of course) of said thinking. Still, despite her trust in me (or perhaps because of it), I thought it best to inform her of a class session during which students would interact with a YouTube site posted by an edgy writer, Deb Olin Unferth, reading her “F-bomb-laced” short story. I need to emphasize here that the F-bomb was the focus of the piece, repeated like a mantra in lines that began “Deb Olin Unferth is (or is not) f---ed up,” with constant slight variations regarding how other figures – from historical to pop culture – viewed her. The theme I’d chosen for that class was “Moral Art”; therefore, I intended to expose students to controversial works and cause them to form their own judgments of the works as either quality art or pulp or even porn.
To say that many all-too-recent high-school students were a bit subdued after experiencing such a piece in an academic context would be understatement. That class, as with most classes, contained a broad spectrum of students. Some had been home schooled by devout parents. Others had attended religious schools. Still others --- or so I would learn --- could have (and may have) written and published their own versions of profanity-laced pieces. I do feel it prudent to clarify that I’d cautioned the students regarding the material well beforehand and, in fact, told them that I’d invited Dr. Sawin to join us.
After the spirited class discussion on “moral art” that ensued, Dr. Sawin and I walked back to our offices. I wasn’t quite sure what her response would be, though I knew she would be honest and insightful. The evolution from our initial student-teacher relationship had led to what was by then a colleague-to-colleague alliance, though her wisdom and experience kept me grounded in what I viewed as mentor-apprentice roles. She reassured me that even though she wouldn’t have chosen that exact piece, she deeply respected my judgement and my rapport with the students. Then she paid me what I knew to be her greatest compliment: “You really made them think.”
To grasp the full meaning of that comment, I will share an anecdote Dr. Sawin often told of her own teaching, specifically regarding student evaluations of professors. To appreciate the following anecdote, one needs to understand that Dr. Sawin punctuates her dialogue with animated gestures, expressions, and shifts of voice and tone that could surely land her the female lead in any Shakespearean play.
“I was a young faculty member at Western intent on doing a good job teaching because I knew that would be an important part of earning tenure. I taught from a book called Influence, Belief and Argument that I had used as a grad assistant in the Rhetoric Program at The University of Iowa. Believing my choice of text was unassailable, I was surprised by some resistance. One student, in particular, showed his irritation in countless little ways in class until one day he brought me a drop slip. Worried that students dropping my class wouldn’t look good to my superiors, I told him, ‘I’ll sign your withdrawal, but I’d like to know why.’ ‘This isn’t English,’ he said. ‘You’re trying to teach us how to think.’ He raced down the corridor to the Registrar’s office. I wanted to call after him, ‘Oh, please, head to the Dean’s office. Do tell him what I am doing.’ His criticism was unintended praise. I walked with relief back into my classroom.”
That’s partially why I accepted it as Dr. Sawin’s highest praise when she told me I’d made my Honors students think. Moreover, she knew I’d made them think about life in the mythical “Real World,” the Big Bad World beyond the cozy confines of our classroom walls. In the trademark Betty Sawin fashion, I’d dared students to consider the controversial work as if they were deciding its merits as future members of school boards, of library boards, of judges rendering decisions on obscenity cases. In the context of the “F-bomb” literary work, I’d challenged them to position themselves in the roles of power that many of them are destined to fill.
I will close by confessing that Dr. Sawin made me an academic thief. I stole from her. Shamelessly. I stole classroom demeanor from her. I stole assignments from her, especially the “three letter” task that requires composition students to draft and snail mail one letter of praise or thanks, one letter requesting information, and one letter expressing a complaint or demanding action. Students remain amazed by the responses they get, by the power of language well used. I never assign the project without crediting it to her.
And I stole profound comments Dr. Sawin made in class thirty years ago that live on in what I tell my students:
“In the middle class you work for your money. In the upper class your money works for you.”
“When you are choosing a paper topic say to yourself, So what? Who cares? Prove it!’”
“You reputation dictates how you behave when you think your actions will be known. But it is your character that dictates your actions when you think you will never be found out.”
With that last quote Dr. Sawin gave me and all my classmates a quote by which to live. It is so rich it must be shared and, more importantly, practiced. Within the first couple weeks of each new semester, I will claim an “emergency” that causes me to leave the classroom just as my students have begun their quiz over the day’s assigned reading. I’ll saunter in the halls for a few minutes, allowing plenty of time for forbidden “collaborative” quiz-taking, then re-enter the room noisily so as not to surprise any students “collaborating” on answers.
With rare exception, a few students will exchange conspiratorial glances, and a few others will send me meaningful looks as if there’s something they wish they could tell me. I’ll smile knowingly at all of them, seeking eye contact with each, and say, “Know what I just did? When I left the room, I gave you the most important and revealing test you’ve ever taken. I gave you a character test. I really don’t care about today’s quiz. In the course of the entire semester, one perfect score or a zero isn’t likely to change your final grade. And I never want to know whether you cheated. But what you learned about yourself and about your classmates, as well as what they learned about you --- that’s the test that matters.” Then I deliver Dr. Sawin’s quote and tell them its source.
We who choose the teaching profession in the Liberal Arts, or who are chosen by it, will from time to time find ourselves questioning the worth of our work, the practical value of it, its staying power --- and our own staying power. If we succeed as teachers, we will somehow change the thinking of our students: how they appreciate and engage the world that will be theirs to tend after we are gone.
Whether it was Writing Across the Curriculum, Outdoor Semester, our Honors Program, environmental causes, or simply the stimulating classroom experience, Betty enriched our campus for decades through sheer force of her will, intellect, and character. My students even sometimes mention her passed-down quotes in their evaluations of me. And sometimes, when the Eder hallway lies in an empty quiet on a weekend or of an evening, I swear I still hear her hurried steps on the carpet and feel the wind rush as she passes on her way to class.