Lois Bueler, Outstanding Teacher
(photo Jeff Teeter)
When I recounted the conversation I'd had with editorial assistant Jason Willmon on my way out the door to interview her, Lois Bueler nodded, and said, "Yes, that's about right. I strive for a kind of challenge and honesty that probably leaves many of my students feeling that way."
Lois Bueler, Outstanding Teacher for 1998-99, appears to have mastered a kind of paradoxical approach, a holding of opposites, which marks her teaching with uniqueness and authenticity. From the many comments of former students, teaching assistants, and composition instructors for whom she has been a guide, it is clear that Lois Bueler is a teacher and a human being who will never be forgotten.
Bueler, now a full professor, came to CSU, Chico in 1982 to teach in the English Department. The fact that she has taught over twenty different courses since being here, an "amazing array" according to English Chair Karen Hatch, is testimony to the multi-faceted nature of her intellectual preparation and interests. One of her areas of expertise is grammar, and she is both the hands-down expert and one of the few in the department, perhaps, that actually loves to teach it. She sees its depth, its logical structure, its relationship to clear thinking, and can teach it in a way that moves students ahead and beyond intellectually.
Bueler has taught a special topics course for graduate students "Grammar and the Rhetoric of Poetry," as well as British literature, the British novel, Medieval literature, literary theory, and rhetoric. Her intellectual pursuit of the "Tested Woman Plot" resulted in Clarissa's Plots, published by the University of Delware Press, and, in 1992, the Award for Best Ms. in 18th Century Studies from the same press.
Additional awards have included four NEH grants, including two since she has been in Chico which have taken her to Harvard University for summer seminars, a CSUC merit award for teaching and scholarship, a CSU research grant, and a CSU Foundation Recognition Award.
At the heart of her teaching are some major assumptions: Whatever the course, my business is to help students understand its connections with their own multifaceted lives and with the various subdisciplines of English, and to engage them in actual language practices that become part of their repertoire as whole people. Therefore I unabashedly use my own zest for language and texts, for connections among ideas and historical periods and ways of seeing the world, as an energizing expression of what the discipline of English can offer. And I try to build all my classes around a series of practices that I can teach and my students can engage in.
And I mean teach, not simply present information, list expectations, or demand certain kinds of performance in order to reward or penalize the results.
It would be impossible to explore in a few paragraphs what Bueler means by the above or what it implies, but she offered several clues in our broad ranging conversation. Teaching, to Bueler is not the kind of performance that marks many good and charismatic teachers, but it is an enthusiasm for and a "being the subject" that models for students in the way that a sensei of a martial art models for her students.
The use of sensei for teacher is apt for Bueler, as she was teaching in Taiwan when she used the term for the first time. And she likens her teaching to the kind of good coaching that a true sensei does, whether in music, art, language, or sports. It is the kind of teaching where there is little or no separation between the theory and practice. In a martial art, such a separation can be dangerous; in the classroom, it can produce irrelevancy and disconnection; and in life, it can be perilous.
And it is in her life in the last eight months, that those who know Bueler, a musician, a hiker, a rock climber, and a canoeist, have seen theory put into practice. In January 1997, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was forthright with her students about her condition and treatments. She missed three or four class sessions (not days, she emphasizes) during the semester, and those were due to a secondary infection, not the treatments themselves. She is proudest of the class session at the end of spring semester when she was absent and her students chose to discuss their papers on difficult and complex topics in 17th century literature on their own and reported to her about how productive the sessions were. "It was a great tribute," said Bueler, "and I was very moved."
How could she keep teaching through what many would find impossible and absence excusable? "I hate to miss class. No one else can do my class because each class is interconnected with all that has come before. It is shameful to miss class and my day feels empty," said Bueler with intensity.
As for the challenge of pursing both teaching and research, Bueler said, "I have found that among the roles I have filled here, teacher, scholar, and administrator, I can do two at once, but I cannot do three. I can teach and administrate, or be a scholar and teach, or be an administrator and scholar. I cannot do them all and do each justice."
Her scholarship infuses her teaching, not always directly in the sense of teaching what she is researching, but in the sense, she said, that she is always a working writer. And teaching inspires her scholarship. Both are laborious, difficult, stimulating, and joyful. Bueler said, "It is that experience I want my students to have also, especially the joy."