Ann Williams - Acceptance Speech

2013 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year
Ann Williams
Professor of French
Metropolitan State University of Denver

In preparing these remarks, I chose to see this as an opportunity to reflect on my 24-years as a university professor. These reflections seem to fall into three categories:

Why I teach
What I strive to teach
What teaching teaches me

Let me start with the “why.” My father was a teacher and coach, beginning his career in rural Colorado. Students and former students stopped by our home “just to say ‘hello’”. He touched these young people—maybe taught them a bit of world history—but what they also learned was self-respect and respect for others, commitment to goals that they themselves had set and, not least, that a school community is a source of joy and fun as well as book-learning and effort. I teach because somewhere I learned that this profession allows for privileged interaction with other human beings. We share questions and answers, struggles and successes, and, if we’re lucky, we share times like these. I teach because committed teachers and professors taught me French and it changed my life.

What do I strive to teach?

I believe that the Humanities in general build intellectual and creative awareness and that learning French, or any foreign language, gives students new ways of thinking about the world and a new way to articulate their thoughts. I suspect that all of you had a foreign language class at some point, and yes, I teach verbs and pronouns and I insist that you really can’t translate some things word-for-word unless you want to sound very silly. I teach French literature, and I help students to engage with cultures in countries where French is spoken. I use my own experience as a starting point because I was once where they are—at each stage of their contact with French. I set the bar high because I know that so very many of them will go so very far. My hopes resemble theirs. I hope that they will get to live in Grenoble or Dakar or Montréal some day or that they will visit the Louvre (and pronounce it right) or work at the Pasteur Institute or a brewery in Belgium. Far beyond verbs and pronouns, in order for those opportunities to materialize, I think students need to learn to trust that they will be “ok” when they take risks. They need to trust that their openness to another language and the cultures it serves will give them skills that can be applied to whatever profession they choose, wherever they choose to live.

The humanistic essence of learning a foreign language is valuable in ways that my students will continue to explore, long after they have shut their textbooks or logged-off the Online Learning Center. We often think of languages in terms of access to the global, and some people tend to focus on the practical nature of international learning, but the perspectives provided through foreign language study are of local relevance as well. Our diverse communities cry out for ways to come together and learners of every language are bridge-builders “par excellence”. I am proud to contribute to this, as an author and especially as a teacher, which leads me to the last of my reflections—what all of this teaches me.

My scholarly work and my experience in the classroom tell me that there is always something to discover, both in my field and in ways of conveying what I know. The world in which my students and I function today is not the small town I grew up in. We have the chance to find our places in an international forum where trains and planes and a click of the mouse can take us as far from the familiar as we are willing to go. Thanks to my students, I will not forget what it means to be a learner, an explorer, a taker of risks.

To CASE and to the Carnegie Foundation, I give my heartfelt thanks for this honor. Preparing to talk to you today prompted me to think about my work and my students, allowing me to focus on things that sometimes remain unsaid in the hustle and bustle of daily life in the university. I’d like to thank Dr. Jordan, the president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, who, along with his team, provides an environment where academic rigor is combined with compassion to meet the needs of the diverse student population that I so admire. And, lastly, a “grand merci” to students, friends and colleagues—and to Christian and Ben, my husband and son, who accompany me on this and so many journeys. This award belongs to all of us and to university professors and students, wherever they may be.