Frances Dolan, Distinguished Professor of English, was presented with the University of California, Davis, Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement during her "Law and Literature" class today (March 1).
She was honored by her colleagues, students and administrators with plaudits, speeches and a specially decorated cake — a cake-and-frosting stack of books with titles used in her class.
“UC Davis is very fortunate to have a professor who shares her love of literary analysis of multiple genres to motivate you, her students, and your intellectual inquiries and help you develop your own passions in reading regardless of where your careers might take you,” said Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi at the classroom celebration. “As chancellor, it is a great pleasure for me to recognize and thank Professor Dolan for giving her heart to UC Davis and to our students.”
“I’ve been so amazed by the comments of your students,” Katehi said in the presentation. “I’ve been thinking I should take your class.”
The prize, which includes a $45,000 award funded solely by philanthropic support from the UC Davis Foundation, is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country. Established in 1986, it honors faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. This year was the first time the award went to an English professor.
“Looking around this room and seeing the excitement that you students have for Professor Dolan, I can tell that memories of her winning sense of humor and love of literature will follow you well after graduation,” said Henry Wirz, a member of the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees and chief executive officer of SAFE Credit Union. “And you are likely to carry her lessons about critical thinking, communication, hard work and the joy of reading with you throughout your lives.”
“That is largely what this prize is about,” Wirz continued. “It highlights UC Davis’ commitment to you, the students, by recognizing that the quality of your education begins with the caliber and successes of our faculty, as well as their ability to keep you engaged.”
Dolan also addressed her students. “You are not spectators. You are the story. I wish your public education was even more accessible than it is,” she said to warm applause.
An advocate for Davis community
Following the celebration, Dolan will pick up a few children’s books Saturday and head out to the Davis Farmers Market to read aloud to children. It is this incredible breadth of ability to deliver the love of books to children, while still producing award-winning scholarship and embracing public university teaching, that illustrate Dolan’s versatility.
“I’ll be reading classics as well as recent award winners and moving from planting seeds, through farming, to the farmers market, and finally to the table. Farm to fork, seed to table children’s books,” she said.
“This is part of my desire to link what we do at the university to the features that make Davis a special place to live — in this case, using literature to help children understand what a farmers market is and why they should care.”
Dolan said that she can, in this way, introduce children to an urgent issue, such as the drought, in an accessible way — in this case, an adaptation of Jack and the Bean Stalk.
Student evaluations: A professor you ‘dream of having’
Colleagues and students praise Dolan’s ability to make difficult concepts accessible, whether they be the writings of William Shakespeare or children’s literature. And, as students have written in their evaluations, she is the kind of professor “you dream of having.”
Said Susan Kaiser, interim dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in the College of Letters and Science, “ [She is] a classroom teacher who inspires not only her students but her peers; a mentor whose lessons bear fruit long after her students have moved on from Davis; a colleague who works tirelessly to keep the undergraduate curriculum vital and relevant. Fran Dolan embodies the very best of our campus in her multifaceted and endlessly generous commitment to her students’ understanding.”
One student wrote that Dolan’s support and enthusiasm helped her get through an honors thesis on an unconventional topic. “She willingly took on the task of being my adviser, even though as a Shakespeare scholar she was no more particularly well-suited than any of the others. She took the time and energy to learn … about what I was studying so that she could effectively guide me [and] engage me in discussions that furthered my own understanding of my research.”
Briana Desilva, a 26-year-old junior who attended Dolan's class, said Dolan's prize was richly deserved. "Her teaching is impeccable," she said.
“Without Professor Dolan’s encouragement, I would not be where I am as a writer,” added Desilva, who is writing her first short story as her final for the class.
Scholarship blends with teaching
Dolan’s interest in why and how people read, and how literature and literary methods contribute to knowledge, unites her research and her teaching. Her most recent scholarly book, True Relations: Reading, Literature and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) won the North American Conference on British Studies 2014 John Ben Snow Prize for the best book by a North American scholar in any field of British Studies dealing with the period from the Middle Ages through the 18th century. The book considers how and what people in the 17th century read, and how and why scholars today read 17th-century works.
She also recently published Twelfth Night: Language and Writing (2014), a book designed to help students gain the skills needed to write effectively about literature and one that evinces her strong and continuing commitment to undergraduate education.
Joined the faculty in 2003
Dolan joined the UC Davis faculty as professor of English in 2003. Before coming to Davis, she taught at Miami University (Ohio), as well as the University of Chicago and Columbia University.
She has taught a variety of courses, including "Shakespeare"; "British Drama to 1800"; "Literatures in English I," or ENL 10A (the first part of a required sequence for English majors); and "Children’s Literature." She teaches lower- and upper-division classes for both English majors and nonmajors.
In 2004-05, Dolan served as the president of the Shakespeare Association of America. She has edited six Shakespeare plays, published five books and numerous articles in journals and edited collections. In coming months, Dolan will be giving talks on Shakespeare, commemorating the 400th anniversary this year of Shakespeare’s death.
She has been honored with prestigious fellowships, including a Guggenheim and one of the endowed distinguished fellowships at the Huntington Library, The Fletcher Jones Distinguished Fellowship.
A family of readers
Dolan grew up in Chicago, in a family of readers in which everyone got lost in reading books (and even the backs of cereal boxes), but no one else became an academic. As a result, she believes that literature is a passion that can enhance one’s life, regardless of career path.
Wrote Professor Elizabeth Miller, chair of the English department, “She is an unselfish mentor, one deeply engaged with meeting students where they are and with leading — but also following — them to new places.”
Teaching is collaborative
Dolan, who is the 29th recipient of the award, said she feels humbled by the honor.
“I am aware of how collaborative teaching really is: I come from a department of great teachers and I learn from and borrow from my colleagues every day.” She said she finds it hard to imagine teaching without all of the conversations she has about it. “My partner, Scott Shershow, is also a colleague in my department. And my best friend, Robyn Muncy, is a historian at the University of Maryland — so I am always getting ideas and inspiration from them.”
Dolan is committed to teaching at a public university, and making a rigorous and rewarding college experience accessible to “the wonderful range of students we attract here at Davis.” She said she knows how hard students and their families work to make their education possible, so she tries to match their investment with her own.
She added: “Above all, every class is a collaboration with the students. What can happen in the classroom is so dependent on students’ preparation and engagement.”
She also stressed the importance of encouraging her students to be lifelong readers and learners. And that starts early — when she reads to children at the farmers market.
“I believe in books and reading, in reading aloud and sharing a story as well as being able to disappear into the pages of a book. I always love sharing that with others.”