Deans and administrators from each college suggested two faculty members who deserve special “kudos” during Faculty Appreciation Week.
La Vinia Jennings
The classes taught by La Vinia Delois Jennings range from undergraduate honors courses to graduate seminars. Many of them bear provocative titles, such as “Racial Passing and the New Millennium Minstrel Show” and “Consciousness and Memory: the Materialization and Visualization of the Immaterial in 20th-century Literature and Film.”
“Usually, I give the provocative titles to my graduate courses,” the English professor said. “For students enrolled in those courses, I tend to offer topics that have not been heavily explored. Instead of focusing on a writer whose work has an extensive body of criticism and research, I look to find the critical approach or topic that hasn’t been done so that my graduate students can develop fresh, cutting-edge ideas about what needs to be done next.”
For Jennings, the goal at the undergraduate level is to cover all the basics by teaching students to do the foundational work and make meaning out of texts. But she takes pride in not having a predetermined idea of what the student’s interpretation should be.
“As a teacher, Dr. Jennings creates engaging courses wherein she and students are co-creators of inquiry into the subject,” said doctoral student Susan Eastman, who also lectures in the English department.
Jennings said part of teaching is changing with the times.
“Literature speaks to different generations in different ways,” she said. “I want my students to look at textual issues, symbols, and aesthetics in innovative ways and be open to exploring those ways in addition to the ways that they have been looked at in the past.”
She has done that herself.
Jennings, professor of 20th-century American literature and a Lindsay Young Professor of English, won the Toni Morrison Society Book Prize for her critical study, “Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa,” which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, reprinted in 2009, and issued in paperback in 2010. Morrison, the Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was present when Jennings received the award. Her study on Morrison also received the College Language Association’s 2009 Outstanding Scholarship Award. She also has published books on the dramatist Alice Childress and on the topic of global whiteness.
Jennings has received the Jefferson Prize, the College of Arts and Sciences Junior Faculty Teaching Award and the John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award presented by the English department. Jennings also was appointed a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Málaga in Spain.
She is now working on a major research project on race, sex and terrorism in addition to having an edited manuscript on Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston that is under review by readers at a major press.
Every student has had a teacher who tells bad jokes; Kate Jones, assistant professor of physics, prides herself in being that teacher.
“I tell the really bad jokes in class because I love to hear my students groan. That’s how I know they’re listening!” Jones said.
“I am teaching a 100-level course in astronomy right now, which is a general education requirement and a lot of fun, but last semester I was teaching nuclear physics to nuclear engineers. What was so great about that is that many of them had a great interest in science. They weren’t sure if they were more interested in the physics or the engineering; they were sort of teetering between, so it was a great experience to watch their interests develop,” she said.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the nucleus and of nuclear physics as a science, but Jones likes to keep her study and her students current.
“I try to let my students look at things that are going on now. Even though the history is important, in science, you don’t want to always be looking at things that happened 100 years ago. I try to get them thinking about what has happened in the last few years, like the discovery of element 117, which happened just last year,” Jones says.
Element 117, still unnamed, is the latest in a series of super-heavy atoms to be synthesized in the last few years and the most recent to earn a permanent spot in the periodic table.
Jones, who joined the physics faculty in 2006, is part of UT’s experimental nuclear astrophysics group, which investigates the workings of the subatomic nucleus and the role it plays in how elements are created. She earned her doctorate in experimental nuclear physics at the University of Surrey, England. After that, she won a Lindemann Trust Fellowship, an honor awarded to graduates of exceptional promise who have shown a talent for original research.
“Physics is my life. My husband is an experimental nuclear physicist too, and we have two daughters who are 2 and 5 ½. We’re a true ‘nuclear family,'” she said … waiting for the groan.