Last month, Wofford associate English professor Carol Wilson received an Excellence in Teaching award from the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities Inc. Wilson was more than deserving of the honor, but she chuckles at the thought of someone who resists individual awards receiving one such as the one she received.
“Accepting the award, which was truly an honor, was odd for me,” laughs Wilson. “Years ago I was asked to report from a group discussion to the faculty on the possibility of establishing teaching awards at the college. I gave what I thought was a very nice presentation on why individual teaching awards do not reflect what we do here and why the college should not go down that path. Although I obviously didn’t have the whole picture, I really thought I was brilliant and persuasive.”
Which is exactly why she won the award. Former student Craig Sudduth, who graduated in May, says Wilson opens minds and hearts at the same time.
“I always loved taking classes with Dr. Wilson,” he says. “She is incredibly demanding as far as what she expects from you as a student, both in terms of papers and preparation, but the final experience is always worth it. She works hard to create a sense of trust and community within her classroom so that you can always speak up or offer your opinion without fear that she will ridicule you if you aren’t right on the mark.
“Outside the classroom she is a warm person who takes the time to get to know so many of her students and is well known in the English department as someone who offers her students one-on-one help with assignments or just a sympathetic ear. I always left a Dr. Wilson class with a new perspective on whatever literature we were considering, and on more than one occasion left with a deep appreciation of a work that I had not cared for the first time I had read it.”
Wilson, meanwhile, credits her students and her colleagues with honing her teaching skills.
“I find teaching to be collaborative,” she says. “And teaching awards suggest an independence that I don’t find in my work. I have students like Craig who are my partners in my work. They are curious and interested and who ask questions. I get a lot of nice notes from students who encourage me in all I attempt to do.
“I work with colleagues whom I can show weakness to, and I can’t explain how important that is. A lot of places you can’t do that. My success is very much a byproduct of the success of my department. I learned to teach here. I have worked with extremely good teachers. I have messed up with good people watching and helping me and I’ve had really good days with extraordinary people applauding.
Wilson, who grew up in Denmark, S.C., graduated from Wofford in 1981. Hers was just the second class at Wofford in which women lived on campus. She returned to teach at Wofford in 1984 and earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of South Carolina.
She likes to tell the story of how the young daughter of two parents who never completed college almost went to the College of Charleston instead of Wofford.
“I was all set to go to Charleston,” she says. “But I got a call at the end of April, a scholarship offer to Wofford. To this day, I don’t know if I was number 99 on the list of potential scholars, but I said ‘Yes, I would LOVE to have that scholarship.’
“It’s useful to have had that experience when I talk to students. The whole pathway of my life was determined by that scholarship offer coming through, and my accepting it.”
Once at Wofford, she showed a determination that helped turn a stroke of good fortune into a canvas of opportunity for years to come.
“There were 69 women among 1,000 or so students my freshman year,” she recalls. “It was a big deal back then to have women on campus. I once walked across this campus to class and saw a banner that said ‘Wofford women go home.’ But other students accepted us. I was elected to Campus Union that year, and by my senior year women held three of the top four offices. I was vice president, Roberta Bigger (current Dean of Students) was secretary and Kem Maloney was treasurer.”
When she graduated from Wofford and pursued her master’s, she taught at USC.
But teaching is just one part of Wilson’s life. The balance that comes with her marriage to Greenville physician Randy and raising son John, now 13, keeps her sane.
“I’m awfully committed to our son,” she smiles. “And I’m a volunteer in the Greenville community. The college has always supported and encouraged me when a mid-day meeting meant I needed to run to Greenville at 11 a.m.”
She also loves cooking and reading.
“I like the early modernist authors,” says Wilson. “Especially James Joyce. People always look at me funny when I admit that love, but I enjoy the experimental novelists of the early 20th century. I like Faulkner’s experimental works. I like Virginia Woolf. Joyce is extraordinary. Ulysses is just amazing to me.
“I don’t read from a position of mastery. I read from a position of learning. I like literature that you can always revisit. When I make classroom presentations in Greenville and talk about my job, I tell the third and fourth graders that my job is to sit in a circle with very smart people and talk about books. And I get to pick the books. You should see the students’ faces. They say ‘Whoa, that sounds so cool!’”
Wilson’s passion makes her the teacher she is. Wofford helped define the eternal student that resides within her.
“I hope to teach people how to look at the world and look at themselves and their places in the world. Literature and writing provide one lens. That’s why I value a liberal arts education. We give people different lenses.
“I love this place because in order to be successful at anything you have to be willing to take risks and try new ideas. This is a place where I can do that.”