The first time LSA senior Lauren Sarkesian walked into her “Shakespeare’s Principal Plays” lecture, she thought it was a nice gesture when the professor went around and shook everyone’s hand in the Angell Hall Auditorium, but figured it was simply a one-time thing on the first day of the semester.
Then he did it again the next class. And the one after that.
His insistence on greeting all students — even in large lecture classes — is only one trademark of English Prof. Ralph Williams who was recently awarded the statewide 2008 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Michigan Professor of the Year Award.
Sarkesian said she thought his persistent effort to get to know all his students on a personal level make him an ideal candidate for the Carnegie award.
“People will bring their parents to lecture really often because he’s so unique,” she said. “The lecture hall is always packed.”
Though Williams said he was honored to win the award, he said he mostly sees himself as a representative of the larger style of teaching that the foundation wants to acknowledge.
“There are so many professors who give their lives to their students and to their studies at the University of Michigan, let alone the state,” he said. “There’s no way obviously to honor them all — it would be a virtually endless list — so I reckon that they settle on someone who does many of the things that they would like to honor more generally.”
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education sponsor the award. There are four national winners and 46 state-level winners, of which Williams is one winner.
Past winners include Central Michigan University Education Prof. Norma Bailey and Wayne State University Communication Prof. George Ziegelmueller.
Williams’s experience at the University of Michigan is long and distinguished. He has served as chair of the University’s graduate English program, head of the University’s Great Books program, director for the Program on Studies in Religion and, most recently, as the associate chair of the English department.
He has also become something of a celebrity among his current and former students. That’s due in large part to his dramatic approach to lecturing.
He recites lines form works as if acting on a stage. He infuses so much energy and emotion into some lectures that they end with Williams wiping tears from his face. Some of his favorite lines — he starts every most lectures by declaring that “the wind is up” — are quoted among English majors like other quote Top Gun.
He also specializes in Shakespeare, the Bible as literature, the works of Primo Levi and helped found the University’s Royal Shakespeare Company Residency program.
Williams has also won more than a dozen awards, fellowships and grants during his academic career, among them the University’s Golden Apple Teaching Award and the Excellence in Education Teaching award, which he has won four times.
Formality aside, Williams often reads to his students and acts out the lines to the Shakespeare plays his classes study.
“It’s not formal, he just does it in his own way — you can tell he’s a thespian, though,” Sarkesian said.
After 38 years at the University, Williams said he plans on retiring after winter term, and he plans to spend his time writing, studying and “making myself a better man than I am today.”
“Generally, I go from the time I wake up, which is usually four or five, to the time I drop, which is usually around midnight, and that’s wonderful,” he said. (Williams’s abbreviated sleep schedule is unsurprising to alumni of his classes. He announces it when he hands out syllabi, along with his home phone number.)
But, he added, “it would be nice to know the feeling of having time to dispose of.”