April 20, 2005

Alberta Skaggs named top term faculty member

by K.C. Jaehnig


Alberta Skaggs

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Harrisburg native Alberta J. Skaggs, a lecturer in English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has won the University's top teaching honor for faculty members not in tenure-track positions.

Skaggs will receive $3,000 through SIUC's "Excellence Through Commitment Awards Program," set up by Chancellor Walter V. Wendler to reward ongoing contributions by tenured and term faculty, staff and graduate assistants throughout the University. The program reflects SIUC's aim of encouraging outstanding work, one of the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Wendler will host a dinner to honor all award recipients at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21.

Skaggs, who began her University teaching career as a graduate assistant to liberal arts dean Shirley Clay Scott in 1998, has served the department as a lecturer since 2001, teaching courses that range from freshman composition to introductory Shakespeare.

"Alberta was always game for whatever assignment I needed to have covered; she never complained, never seemed put out, never made me feel as if she was storing up brownie points that would sometime in the future need to be redeemed," wrote former English chair Kevin J.H. Dettmarr in a letter supporting her nomination for the award.

E. Beth Lordan, who teaches in the department's creative writing program, and Stephen J. Dollinger, a psychologist who once audited her class because of her reputation as a creative teacher, both gave examples of her innovative approach. In her Shakespeare class, students read plays aloud; the term finishes with the Skaggs Players performing scenes. Students learning to write fiction draw subjects from Skaggs' Journal Jar for in-class assignments.

Skaggs uses such strategies deliberately.

"My main goal is to connect students and words, to teach them close reading, to build respect for novelists, short-story writers, playwrights, poets, to illuminate the skills in the art of writing and how reading can alter your thinking and enrich your life by learning about the human condition," she wrote in a statement reflecting on her teaching.

Scott, who praised Skaggs' animation, intensity and enthusiasm, wrote that she was sometimes "jealous" of Skaggs' power to engage the students, power that perhaps springs from Skaggs' own roots as a farm girl in Saline County.

"I have come to believe that her background gives her special access to many of our students, and I believe her teaching finds out and answers longing and needs that students scarcely know they have," Scott wrote. "Her form of interactive teaching is probably not reproducible."

Skaggs does identify with those she teaches.

"I keep in mind that some students enrolled at SIUC have low ACT scores, and many, many students do not read," she wrote. "Haven't read books in 10 years sometimes. I want to nurture them back into reading with emphasis on language and dialogue, imagery and scene."

Lordan, who has worked with Skaggs in one capacity or another over the last decade, wrote that in that time she had seen several warm reunions between Skaggs and students who had failed Skaggs' class.

"Each of those young people has volunteered immediately and without solicitation that it wasn't Alberta's fault, that she was, in fact, the best teacher ever," Lordan wrote.

"She takes her teaching responsibilities so seriously, discharges them with such care and vigor, that her students — even those who fail — take her as a role model as well as a mentor and teacher."

Skaggs, who now lives in Carbondale (804 Cherry), graduated from Harrisburg High School and earned an associate degree in 1994 from Southeastern Illinois College. A two-degree SIUC grad, she has a bachelor's earned in 1997 and a master of fine arts degree earned in 2001.