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Blackburn honored for distinguished teaching at Ohio State

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone and Rachel Rothstein
March 19, 2020

“Approachable, trusted, knowledgeable and passionate.” These words and more described Professor Mollie Blackburn in nominations that recently earned her a coveted teaching award.

In early March, doctoral students, with Blackburn among them, stared in confusion as an entourage led by the university’s Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce McPheron filed into their Ramseyer Hall classroom.

A student had just shared data she collected, and another was offering observations about its analysis. She fell silent, as did class professor David Bloome and four other faculty members present.

The faculty members regularly attend Bloome’s two-semester course to support doctoral students as they hone their research data, but this night was special. All but one of the faculty knew a secret.

“Mollie, I would like to inform you, in front of all these folks, that you are receiving one of 10 Alumni Awards for Distinguished Teaching this year,” McPheron said.

Smiles lit up the room. Thunderous applause rocked the small space. Blackburn rose from her chair, looking stunned.

“And a reminder,” McPheron said, “that only 10 (are chosen for the award) out of the 3,000 plus faculty at all of The Ohio State University campuses.”

Blackburn said she finds sharing classes with students, across the board, invigorating and inspiring. “They help me to remember what is and is not important about the work of preparing teachers and educational researchers.”

Ruth McKoy Lowery, interim chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning, said students tell her how much they value Blackburn as a professor.

“I have watched how you worked with students who were so afraid to move forward,” Lowery said at the award presentation. “And with firmness but kindness, you’ve helped them so they’re now in the final stages of their dissertations.”

Group of men and women applaud inside university classroom
Students and colleagues applaud as they learn Mollie Blackburn is one of 10 Ohio State professors awarded for her teaching.

Why students study with Blackburn

Blackburn is a stalwart supporter for graduate students, acting as a safeguard against the pressure they may experience.

“The first year is hard. Many times, students feel like they are imposters or unable to meet the high expectations,” wrote Jenell Igeleke Penn, ’07 MEd, in her nomination. “But Dr. Blackburn scaffolds our learning so well and pushes us to keep going.”

Penn, who is working on a PhD in Adolescent, Postsecondary and Community Literacies, also manages field experiences for students in the English and Social Studies Education program. Blackburn “saw me,” Penn wrote.

“She listened to me. She encouraged me. She sought out mentors who look like me. I know I am not the only student she has done this for.… I always walk away from meetings with her feeling so empowered and energized. I do not think I would have continued after my first semester without Dr. Blackburn.”

Binta F. Bah, a doctoral student in Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education and a graduate teaching associate, credits Blackburn for bringing her to where she is today: ready to defend her dissertation this spring.

About her first course with Blackburn, Bah wrote, “She curated a syllabus of readings that went beyond traditional, seminal pieces. She instead chose to bring in work that interrogated accepted … ideas about education as a discipline and the approaches used in research…. It was in this particular class that I began to transform into a critical scholar.”

“I not only witnessed a level of robust discussions surrounding course materials that I had never seen before, but I also was an active contributor to it…. She facilitated the creation of an environment where collaborative engagement … with peers was privileged and held sacred.”

Blonde woman reacts with glee as man tells her she won distinguished award
Blackburn laughs as Ohio State Provost Bruce McPheron tells her she won an Ohio State Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Supporting students’ educational goals

Blackburn advises graduate students in four of the department’s programs that contribute to its high rankings by U.S. News & World Report. She teaches in two of those programs: Language, Education and Society and Literature for Children and Young Adults.

A key strength of the department is its connection to the greater university. “You can stretch across Ohio State to take courses with a broad range of scholars to inform your expertise,” she said. “I work a good deal with faculty in Sexuality Studies, for example.”

In addition, she pointed out the benefit of faculty who have taught in diverse K-12 classrooms, either before joining the department or during special opportunities as faculty. “If you come here to become a teacher or to improve your teaching with a master’s degree, if you want to teach diverse students, we share that commitment,” she said.

Blackburn, for instance, received grants to launch an LGBTQ literature class in a local charter high school that actively recruits LGBTQ students. “It offered an elective credit for English and was well received. Now one of their teachers (a graduate of our English Education program) offers that class,” she said.

The department’s research apprenticeship course also is a benefit that pairs students with different faculty for concentrated experiences. “It gives them rich opportunities to develop as scholars,” she said.

Blackburn especially enjoys discovering what drives students’ research interests. “My goal is to help them explore their passions and articulate what they learn. If that’s an experience you want, that’s what matters to me.”

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