By: Crystal Wong, Junior Communication Studies Major
An Exclusive Interview with Professor Lawless, This Year’s Distinguished Teaching Award Recipient
Congratulations to our COMS Department’s very own Professor Lawless for receiving this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award. I had the exciting opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with her, and I asked her to provide some insight on how it feels to be the recipient.
Q: How does it feel to be the winner of this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award?
Professor Lawless: “It feels great. I mean, some of my classes have some emotional baggage that come with that, and it takes a lot out of a teacher to be able to navigate some difficult topics, so then to be rewarded for that feels really great, like that was for a purpose. I had one class last year where we all kind of cried together over some different topics and that can take a lot out of you, but for somebody to say that was important made a difference.”
Q: What are some ways you navigate through the emotional topics?
Professor Lawless: “Well, I actually bring it up with my students that I think that research shows a gap in the discussion of emotions in class and what could happen if we were vulnerable. I asked the students, ‘What do you feel about teacher vulnerability and a teacher being able to be emotional in class?’ This is something I think is maybe unique to my teaching style in some of my upper division classes. We start the conversation there and depending on the class, we broach different topics in different ways. There has to be some foundation made that makes us feel comfortable as a community before we can talk about systemic racism and things like that.”
Q: What was your initial reaction when you found out you received the award?
Professor Lawless: “I was driving home from yoga, and I was dropping my neighbor off at her house. It was 7 a.m. As she was getting out, I was flipping through my phone. I leaned out the door, and I was like, ‘Oh my god! Sandy! Sandy! I won!’ I was really shocked, and I couldn’t believe it. I was really excited. I was excited to tell the students who wrote me letters of recommendation. We had a moment together in class and celebrated a little bit. I was shocked, but excited.”
Q: Can you briefly go over the process of applying for the award?
Professor Lawless: “There are nominations. To submit a nomination packet, I needed to submit five letters of support. They could be from students, faculty, administrators, whomever. I needed to revisit all of my student evaluations and send all of them from the last five years, but also aggregate the scores. I made a chart where I listed all of the questions that were asked and all of the scores for each of the questions showing every class. I had to write a personal statement of what I do that’s unique and why I think I deserve the award. Also, send evidence of teaching excellence. I sent my syllabi, different activities that I think are important. I sent a publication that I did with two students that came out of my classes, and I sent a picture of this [picture frame], which is something my students gave me after a good class together. It says, ‘Thanks for being our COMS Mom’ and it has a picture of all the students in the class.”
Q: What motivated you to apply for this award?
Professor Lawless: “I felt like I had a really powerful year with my students, and it was something I wanted to write about. I wanted to see how my students felt about it, as well, by soliciting those letters. It has a cash award, so that was motivating. Also, because I am pre-tenure, awards can help point out excellence in different areas and can help my tenure evaluation.”
Q: How would you rank this accomplishment in your career?
Professor Lawless: “When I gave the acceptance speech, I said, ‘I believe that a teaching award is the highest accomplishment that one can receive.’ I don’t care if I ever get a research award. I am invested in my research, but I am most invested in my teaching, and my teaching being honored means that I have had an impact on actual people whom I can point out as tangible examples, so that means everything to me.”
Q: To my knowledge recipients of the award are invited to join the CTE Steering Committee for one year. Did you accept the invitation? If so, what do you do on the committee?
Professor Lawless: “Yes. I’m on the steering committee of the Center for Teaching Excellence. We are responsible for planning pedagogical activities on campus for staff and faculty, in addition to nominating people for the awards.”
Q: What will you look for in future candidates of this award?
Professor Lawless: “If I were to nominate somebody, I would think about the colleagues who I have been able to learn from. Maybe they’ve shared activities with me. Maybe they’ve shared a moving experience. Maybe they’ve shared readings that have helped them. Maybe there are students who talk to me about them and, so I would want to look for something that goes beyond a good teaching evaluation, but they can point to tangible examples of how they can create transformative experiences in the classroom.”
Q: Last question, what did you plan on doing with the reward money?
Professor Lawless: “I treated myself to something I wouldn’t buy, unless I won that money.I got a new personal computer, a new Mac, so that I could continue my research. It’s rose gold!”