For Western Carolina University’s Laura Wright, being an English professor isn’t just teaching students about words upon a page.
Over the course of her 25 years in higher education classrooms, she says she has come to realize that her job is also about “teaching students to be empowered to read the world as text, as evidence of the ways that human beings interact, negotiate, navigate and, most importantly, empathize with the complex circumstances that we encounter every day.
“Perhaps, because I have been teaching for so long, I view the world as a teacher,” Wright said. “I find that nearly everything I encounter – whether on the news, while on a hike or while buying groceries – is a potential teachable moment. If the entire world is a collection of constantly changing texts, teaching them can never grow old, even as I grow older and, I hope, a bit wiser.”
Wright, a member of WCU’s English Department faculty since 2005 and a resident of Candler, was recently named one of the top teachers in the University of North Carolina System. She is among 17 recipients of the 2018 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.
Wright said her 13 years of teaching at WCU, her father’s alma mater, has provided her with an opportunity to work with and mentor students at all levels and in a wide variety of courses, from first-year composition classes to graduate seminars. She said she has maintained a philosophy that no matter how much distance is apparent between herself and her students – chronological, aesthetic or political – she plans to always view them as “complex people with real-life sets of circumstances that shape them as scholars and as individuals whose life experiences inform the work they do in the classroom.”
At the conclusion of each semester, Wright has her students tell her what she needs to read, and they are required to write a letter to her telling her what they have learned. She returns the favor by writing to her students, telling each one what they have taught her.
Wright regularly receives praise from former students who say her discussion-based classes challenged and enriched their ideas and principles. They also speak about the lasting impact she has had on their lives, with one student commenting, “In one semester, Laura Wright helped me to understand how the world functions, as well as my place in it.” Another former student recalled when Wright served as his thesis adviser. During one “particularly rough patch,” she met with him and bought his breakfast early one morning. “The act of sharing a meal with her while talking through my thesis issues was such a powerful human moment for me that I still get emotional remembering it 10 years later,” he said. “Dr. Wright doesn’t just teach students. She pays attention to people and their needs.”
A colleague in the English Department said to call what Wright has accomplished at WCU “award winning” doesn’t capture the extent of her value to the department, WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the university and the teaching profession. “Her students’ response to her teaching is reflected in the awards she has won, but it also can be found in the way they interact with her both while they are here and after they are graduated,” he said. “As students, they find her to be both rigorous and empathetic, affirming and challenging – most of all, life changing. As graduates, they recognize the full extent to which she inspires them to be more active, aware and confident. In short, she inspires them to be better citizens.”
Wright was named recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor bestowed by WCU, in 2009. The following year, WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences presented her with its Teaching Award.
Wright served as head of WCU’s English Department from 2013 until 2016. Her teaching specializations include postcolonial literature and theory, South African literature, ecocriticism, animal studies and food studies. She earned her doctorate in English as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching will be presented to Wright during WCU’s undergraduate commencement that begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 12. She will be the primary speaker for that ceremony, which includes graduating students from the English Department and College of Arts and Sciences.
Wright and other recipients of the UNC honor, representing an array of academic disciplines, were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Personnel and Tenure. Winners receive a commemorative bronze medallion and $12,500 cash prize.
Established by the Board of Governors in April 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institution at least seven years, and no one may receive the award more than once.