With its guaranteed anonymity and slam-book style candor, RateMyProfessor.com is viewed by some faculty with trepidation. Marisa Milanese, a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program senior lecturer, can breathe easy on that account. The entries by her students amount to a lovefest. Or as one fall 2011 entry gushed, “Love Love Love her. In fact, she’s probably my favorite of all time. I grew so much as a writer and as a student.” A ringing endorsement under any circumstances, these comments refer to required classes that, “let’s face it,” says Milanese, “many students would rather not take.”
Milanese, who is also curriculum coordinator and a mentor to fellow writing faculty (the program is home to more than 100 faculty, tutors, and staff), is the winner of one of this year’s two Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching, announced May 3 at the Senior Breakfast. Citing her “irrepressible enthusiasm” for teaching a required course, program director Joseph Bizup, a CAS associate professor, refers to her as “a shining star” on the writing faculty, who “illuminates everything around her.” She has earned a reputation not just as a gifted teacher, but as a caring mentor, generous colleague, and asset to the community with her outreach work for English High School and the educational initiative Success Boston, a program designed to double the college completion rate for Boston public school students.
In her seven years at BU, Milanese has elevated the writing class, sometimes referred to casually as “freshman comp,” to one that captivates students from aspiring poets who mastered AP English to those majoring in mechanical engineering or hospitality administration, from students who already love to write to those who, she says, “never want to write anything more than an email.” Milanese has to hook all of them. “I’m teaching a skill that not all of them understand or appreciate the relevance of,” she says. “I have to explain the assignments and their broader relevance.” Her main goal is “to transform students’ understanding of the writing process” and give them skills “that are broadly applicable to their careers at BU and beyond.” The idea of freshman composition “can feel a little remedial. But that’s not the way we teach our courses; they are very engaging, challenging seminars.”
Content is the key, she says, and the courses she has created bear that out: she has focused on fiction (American Short Story), journalism (Literary Journalism), and her most successful class, Documentary Film: History, Theory and Form. “Above all, I try to bring enthusiasm to every student in all three of my courses each semester,” says Milanese, who earned a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from Stanford University in 1993 and a master’s in creative writing from San Francisco State University in 2002. “This comes naturally, since I am almost embarrassingly excited about everything from film theory to semicolons,” she admits. She has all her students’ email addresses memorized, and “I teach them to think differently about writing, to replace lonely all-nighters with a collaborative, extended process.” In her teaching, she applies theories from Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, and others and takes students to see documentary films (recently they viewed Lee Hirsch’s Bully), to readings by journalists such as Dexter Filkins and Tracy Kidder, and to lectures by people like education historian Diane Ravitch and documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.
“She legitimately cares about her students,” says Stacey Stephens (CAS’15), who just completed Milanese’s film course. “She really makes you think about what you are writing. She won’t just give you a straight answer to your question; she fires back with another question that forces you to find your own answer. Marisa is someone I found myself wanting to do work for and enjoyed doing work for.”
In addition to her work at BU, Milanese has taught writing at an urban high school, a rural community college, and a state university. She also edits a journal of student writing, and she joined the Boston Public Schools Advanced Placement Initiative, which brings together local high school teachers and university instructors to better prepare Boston public school students for college.
“There is no one formula for successful writing,” Milanese says. “It remains a process requiring individual care and intense commitment.” She stresses that she is teaching a process. And that means “patient, attentive reading, prewriting exercises, and the hard work of revising.”
Among her admiring colleagues is her husband, Maurice “Mo” Lee, a CAS associate professor of English and director of graduate studies and admissions. “It’s inspiring, humbling, and downright annoying to see how great a teacher she is,” says Lee. “She loves writing, loves ideas, and loves her students…she helps them fulfill their potential as writers and thinkers.”
Milanese says she’s thrilled to be recognized by receiving a Metcalf Award. “But when my students leave my class,” she says, “I want them to appreciate not what I have done, but how much they can do.”
The Metcalf awards, which are presented at Commencement, date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the teachers. This year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize winner is Andrew Duffy, a CAS master lecturer in physics, and the other Metcalf Award winner is Robert C. Lowe, a School of Medicine associate professor of gastroenterology.