English instructor's efforts are a win for individuality in the classroom
Katherine L. Hall looked at her closet filled with beautiful clothing. She savored the shimmer of silks and the crispness of cotton. Carefully, she curated a dignified ensemble, emphasizing a professional aesthetic. Contemplating the look in the mirror, she added a large, enameled flower necklace, an accessory as decisive as the end punctuation of a declarative sentence.
Every day that Hall, an instructor in the Department of English, teaches her four classes in the Virginia Tech University Writing Program, she has followed this same routine when choosing her ensemble. Out of 7,000 undergraduates from every university department, she will, on average, impart her passion for writing and communications to 72 of these students. She knows she needs to make an impact, and her clothing choices do this. She said this is her way of showing respect for her students. And this is the same care she takes when developing relationships with them.
For Hall, the students are something beyond a sea of faces. They are individuals. Through their reflections about topics such as their favorite foods, their oral presentations, or their dive into research, Hall works to create an environment that is welcoming and equitable for all. And for these efforts, she received the 2022 Sally Bohland Award for Exceptional Leadership in Access and Inclusion during the Virginia Tech Services for Students with Disabilities Excellence in Access and Inclusion Awards. The award honors a member of the teaching faculty based on their personal impact on the immediate campus, providing service to students with disabilities in original ways, and the effect of their leadership on students with disabilities and helping them reach their full potential.
“She provides a safe and nurturing space for all of her students,” said the student who nominated her for the award. “Because Dr. Hall is an English professor, her students frequently write about their personal lives and problems, and she makes sure that every person is safe in their situation. She checks in with each student who is struggling in any way and provides them with resources and gives them opportunities to flourish academically.”
Because this student received class accommodations from the Services for Students with Disabilities Department, the student wished to remain anonymous, but this does not underscore the honor their words bestowed on Hall.
“Honestly, I went to the ceremony in May and didn’t know I won until I opened the program,” she said, smiling at the reminiscence. “A couple of things made me feel so proud. One was the nominator’s beautiful writing. And the second was that the award was student nominated. For me, the best awards come from students.”
Earlier in her career, she realized that helping students excel in their communications fulfilled her as an educator. After receiving her master's degree in English and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech, Hall became an associate professor at the American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and an assistant professor at Khalifa University, also in Dubai. There, she recognized her interests were less about research and more about teaching and student interaction.
Choosing to focus on her methods and teaching practice as an instructor, Hall said her goal is to make sure students have positive and interesting experiences in their learning environment.
For instance, Hall invited her students to go with her to a special talk by the first woman and the first person of color to win two National Book Awards for Fiction, Jesmyn Ward, when she appeared at the Moss Center in partnership with the Department of English Visiting Writer Series.
Another time, when Hall noticed the general atmosphere in her classroom shifting toward depression during a masked semester of the pandemic, she surprised her students with a visit from Derek, one of the Virginia Tech therapy dogs.
And when Hall found out about the Appalachian Prison Book Project and Virginia Tech’s involvement, her class volunteered to help and wrote about their experiences.
“I want them invested in what they’re doing,” she said. “Maybe if I show them I care what they have to say, that their voice matters, then maybe they will do better in the class.”
Hall cares about connecting with her students. She said she sees them as unique and not categorically by interests, race, gender, age, religious affiliations, or by their (SSD) accommodations.
“I won't say I tune my radar to whether or not they have a disability,” she said. “It’s just not a roadblock for them to do their best. It’s about who they are in the class, and one thing that works is they’re not competing against anyone again except themselves.”
She said she tries to protect their individuality and support them when needed. And she grades them at their own levels of accomplishments. This is with or without accommodations.
“Dr. Hall’s desire to provide all students with a caring environment that helps each thrive serves as a great example of the experience we strive for in all of our courses,” said Rebecca Hightower-Weaver, chair of the Department of English. “We are proud that she received the Bohland Award.”
Hall’s work to create a caring classroom is evident to her students.
“Dr. Hall’s accommodations for me have created a great deal of extra work for her, but she has made it clear that it is both her pleasure and privilege, not an encumbrance,” said Hall’s nominator. “I cannot tell you how much this seemingly small gesture has made in my life. She has given me back my dignity.”