Faculty members at the University of Kansas who are fortunate enough to get a Kemper Teaching Fellowship (it comes with a $5000 cash award) are asked to each give a two-minute speech about their “teaching philosophy” at a convivial convention made even more convivial by the sumptious reception which follows the brief ceremony, at which event are served unimaginable delights like baked brie and grilled lambchops, items not regularly ingested in the spartan diet of poorly paid professors in Kansas. Hungry academia nuts on the guest list look forward to stuffing themselves like squirrels at this reception all year long, to store up some calories for the winter, so I imagine that’s why the honorees are asked to keep their speeches under two minutes.
Today is the first day of the fall semester at K.U. I just met the students in my Beginning Playwriting class, which is why I find myself thinking of the two-minute speech I delivered in 2002, when I was one of the fortunate recipients of a Kemper Teaching Fellowship. Here’s the speech I delivered to the crowd gathered that afternoon in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union, before everyone headed for the baked brie and the grilled lambchops.
I was fourteen years old in the Philippines when I first saw AUNTIE MAME, a movie about a wildly eccentric woman who decides to take over the education of her young nephew. Forty-four years later, in my mind’s eye, I can still see Rosalind Russell leading little Patrick up the grand staircase in her lavish New York apartment, her words echoing in my ears: “Child, I am going to open doors for you, doors you never even dreamed existed! What times we are going to have! What vistas we are going to explore together!”
When I started teaching English 101 and 102 as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department at K.U. back in 1972, I secretly thought of myself as a sort of Auntie Mame in Chinese drag, in charge of educating all my little wards straight out of their Kansas high schools. “Good morning, everyone. It is my hope that, in every class this semester, we are going to open books together, meet similes and metaphors we never even dreamed existed! What poems and short stories we are going to read! What novels and plays we are going to explore together!”
But then, in 1989, when I began to teach playwriting in the English Department, I quickly discovered the most wondrous of role reversals. I discovered that, in creative writing, it is NOT the teacher who is Auntie Mame. These days, in my classes, my students are the ones leading me up the grand staircase of their imagination, showing me the worlds they come from, the worlds they live in, sometimes the worlds they envision, brave new worlds I never even dreamed existed! And I find that, at age 58, I am young again, little Patrick meeting his Auntie Mame for the first time again, and for this I am most grateful.
Given the state of the economy in 2009, with severe budget cuts at K.U., there may well be no baked brie or grilled lambchops at the end of this year’s Kemper awards ceremony. We might have to settle for peanuts and melon balls. I can see the headlines now in The Lawrence Journal-World and The University Daily Kansan: “Hungry Hordes Succumb to Kemper Distemper!”