Mary Ann Samyn is the kind of professor you see featured in movies like “Dead Poets Society,” where the students stand on their chairs to acknowledge how their lives have changed because of one teacher.
At West Virginia University, several students and alums have stood on their proverbial chairs for Samyn.
“She was fastidious, she had high expectations, her dark brown eyes could pierce your soul—I liked her immediately.” –student Maggie Heaps
“Once you have taken her class, she becomes a lifelong mentor, and I can truly say that I am a better teacher, researcher and writer because of Mary Ann’s influence on me.” –Beth Staley, Ph.D. candidate in English
“She even confirmed that she had fears too and that life itself was not a certain matter—no less the precarious act of writing and publishing poetry—but that she believed ‘the best stuff often rises to the top,’ and that I had something that was worth pursuing.”-Kelly Moffett, assistant professor of English, Northern Kentucky University
Because she has made writing accessible to students across majors, nurtured talent from freshmen to Ph.D.s, and improved students’ writing and critical thinking, Samyn is being recognized with WVU’s Caperton Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing.
Samyn said she sees her students improve in many ways throughout their classes.
“They have better grammar and sentence rhythm and all that, and more confidence in their own perceptions and their ability to communicate who they are and what they believe,” Samyn said. “Who you are is what you write.”
“All experiences of what we call ‘school’ are experiences of the self. I try to give my students as many of these experiences as possible—writing poems and critical essays, participating in the writing workshop, learning to read aloud, learning to listen, having a chance just to talk to an attentive adult—me, I hope—who is interested in what they have to say and how they feel.”
Students say Samyn’s classes are not only for writers—a distinction that is increasingly being made by public land-grant universities eager to fully train today’s and tomorrow’s innovators.
Staley, who participated in one of Samyn’s workshops, says the class was not made up of only poets and writers.
“I was surrounded by visual artists, scholarly researchers, pre-medical majors, young scientists who had just finished laboratory observations and professional members of the Morgantown community at large,” Staley writes.
“And they didn’t just happen to be in Mary Ann’s class by chance. She had encouraged all of them to pursue writing along with their other passions—to pursue writing because of their other passions.”
Moffett was a struggling graduate student with a husband and young son and pursuing a degree that would help her teach but not explore writing as she wanted.
“Mary Ann must have seen that loss on my face,” Moffett said. “She said something in workshop one night that struck me in a way that made me rush home and type out a long, emotional, nearly desperate e-mail. I had never done that before.”
During her time at WVU, Samyn has taught undergraduates and graduates in classes that include creative writing, literature, poetry and information literacy.
As the Bolton Professor for Teaching and Mentoring, Samyn and her graduate students taught freshmen in residence halls through monthly workshops.
“The grad students and I talk about what we’re trying to accomplish: better writing, yes, of course, but also simply being with the undergrads, showing them that it’s fine to want to write, to care about books, to want to say things about your life so that others can have a better appreciation for who you are and what you think,” Samyn said.
Since 2007-08, the Caperton Award recipient has been a tenured faculty member who shows dedication and proficiency in teaching writing. The award was created through the generosity of former West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton, who is president of the College Board. The award recognizes efforts to improve undergraduate writing skills.
Samyn has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Oakland University, a Master of Arts from Ohio University and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Virginia. She has received the Russell and Ruth Bolton Eberly College Professorship for Teaching and Mentoring twice and has been named a WVU Foundation Outstanding Teacher and Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teacher.
Her poetry has been published in books and chapbooks as well as various literary publications and anthologies.
She has taught English and creative writing at WVU since 2002.
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