The Art of Being Emily
- By Lee Ann Cox
Wandering into the worlds of Emily Bernard — scholar, essayist, teacher of literature and race — is seeing a mosaic in the making.
There are shards of colored glass both beautiful and dangerous; there is artistry and craft, strength and vulnerability. Embodying grace (always), humor, and intellect with a tinge of defiance, the pieces fit together in dynamic, pleasing ways. Refined and raw where the bits of glass cut, gifted and giving, Bernard can break your heart.
Within the classroom, the surface is simpler. She likes some formality with students. “That's how I was raised,” Bernard says in an exaggerated tone that conjures her Nashville upbringing. “I am their professor,” she says, “and my feelings are none of their business,” but later adds that lacking a human side is “not really good pedagogically.”
A failure of pedagogy is unthinkable. Bernard, associate professor of English, is a recipient of one of this year's Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Awards. In addition to sharing her great passion for literature, African American in particular, her most humane gift may be the memory of being a student thriving under the attention of a good professor. “These are the fundamentals of teaching,” Bernard says, laughing over the apparent banality. “Remembering students' names and listening to them when they talk.”
“The thing about my teaching is,” Bernard emails after a few days mulling, “when I am in the classroom with my students, I am really in there with them.” Talking to others, it's hard to find a divergent thought. Bernard's close colleague in the department, associate professor Lisa Schnell, says she's struck by Bernard's accessibility and her mindfulness of each of her students.
“If I had to use a watchword for her classroom,” she says, “it's `connections.'” As Schnell puts it, Bernard forges a community between students, connects them to the material and each other, noting that it's otherwise rare to hear students refer to their classmates by name, building on each other's ideas.
Megan Kennedy, a junior in Bernard's African American Women's Writing course agrees: “Everyone talks. You want to engage in a conversation with her and everyone else.”
“Clearly a lot of effort has gone into forging these connections but you don't see it,” Schnell says. “One of the marks of a great teacher is that nothing is forced. Class just ends and you say, wow, that was a great conversation. It's really profound.”
Sometimes, though, what gives a class the promise of lasting impact, is unknown. Bernard shoots for one truly good idea a semester that students can take with them and use.
“How they will use it is a mystery at this point,” she says. “But it's something that will open up a world for them or a question they want to keep pursuing or changes the way they think and undermines something they were sure about, that explodes that and turns it into good questions. I think that a lot about good teaching. It's understanding that the learning doesn't just happen on the surface. It can happen later.”
So much of Bernard's professional world revolves around the classroom, but much of it is interior — it's not part of that verbal give and take and it is in this work that the surfaces change texture and hue. Her feelings are not for the students in the room but in her personal essays she lays herself bare in stark, lovely prose. It is impossible to portray Bernard as a teacher without including her writing. “Teaching the N-Word” was published in The Best American Essays 2006. A new essay, “Figurines,” will appear this summer in The Best of Creative Non-Fiction, Vol. 2.
“She's exceptionally brilliant and writes beautifully,” says her friend, colleague, and fellow writer professor David Huddle. “She has a real literary sensibility; even her emails come alive.”
It's that, and more than that. As Schnell says, she teaches about race, “the most volatile, complicated issue you can talk about in the American classroom; she holds it together in there, but it has to get expressed.” So she takes the risks that she asks of her students.
“I routinely teach classrooms full of white students,” Bernard writes in “Teaching the N-Word.” “I want to educate them, transform them. I want to teach them things about race they will never forget. To achieve this, I believe I must give of myself. I want to give to them — but I want to keep much of myself to myself.”
Bernard says she's impressed when students take a risk with the understanding that it might not work. In that — in them — she sees a spirit of generosity.
“The reason I can write (this) way, or choose to write (this) way, is because it's that kind of writing that has helped me through difficult moments in my own life so I feel like it's about giving back. …the thing that you want to do is to feel human, to feel like you're really part of the human race. I think that's the ambition when I write.”
It's how broken glass becomes art.