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Dr. Susan Cannata wins UNC Teaching Excellence Award

June 5, 2009

Dr. Susan Cannata, a literature and composition professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, was awarded the 2009 UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence.

12susan_cannata.jpgThe award is given annually to a faculty member on each of UNC’s 17 campuses and underscores the importance of teaching in higher education.

The winners will be honored with a commemorative bronze medallion and a $7,500 cash prize. Dr. Cannata will serve as University Marshal and deliver the commencement address at the 2009 Winter Commencement.

A 10-year faculty member in the Department of English and Theatre, Dr. Cannata is a self-described idealist, believing that all students have the ability and the responsibility to participate in and influence the world in which they live.

“I see the classroom as a place that facilitates intellectual conversation,” she said. “Students are capable, but they need to be assisted into the conversation.”

In her classes,“Students learn that information does not constitute knowledge, that only critical thinking can turn information into knowledge,” she said.

Although the classroom has physical walls, Dr. Cannata reminds students that ideas permeate physical boundaries, and she also works to break down barriers between herself and her students. 

“I don’t want to tell them how to read a poem or write a composition,” she said. “I believe the classroom is a place for students to enter into a dialogue with each other, with me and the world around them.

“I rarely lecture, so there is always interaction in my classes, which is not just good for students, it’s good for me,” Dr. Cannata said. “It is important for students to understand that I do not know everything and that they can teach me too.”

Colleagues describe her classroom as living up to this ideal.

“The warmth of Dr. Cannata’s style allows students to not feel the least bit intimidated, and it creates a sense of community within her classroom,” said Dr. Stephen Robison, art professor and chair of the Faculty Awards Committee. “Her students are not only willing, but eager to be a part of the discourse.”

Student evaluations rate Dr. Cannata consistently very high, and students say her classes are rigorous.

“Class after class, semester after semester, during her time at UNCP, students time and again rank Dr. Cannata’s classes as among the best they’ve taken at this institution,” said Dr. Kim Gunter, UNCP’s former director of composition. “Moreover, she has striven to keep her teaching fresh.”

Dr. Charles Harrington, provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, said Dr. Cannata is a worthy choice for the award.

 “Professor Cannata has consistently demonstrated a very high level of innovation, application, and engagement in her teaching,” Dr. Harrington said. “Students and colleagues have long recognized her exemplary commitment to student learning. 

“This BOG award is fitting recognition of that commitment and demonstrated excellence. The University is very proud to have Dr. Cannata as a member of its faculty,” he said.

Dr. Cannata said teaching is a constantly evolving process, and so is her scholarship. A scholar of Victorian literature, she recently immersed herself in children’s literature.

“It’s not that unusual because the Victorian age is considered the golden age of children’s literature,” Dr. Cannata said. “Nineteenth century writers like Carroll, Kingsley and Kipling led me into the 20th century, to Potter, Lewis and Cormier and other contemporary writers of children’s fiction.

“This study is not only a study of what society wants its children to know, but also an examination of what that desire says about society itself,” she said.

At the recent Undergraduate Research and Creativity Forum, Dr. Cannata mentored five student poster projects on children’s literature. “I was unsure at first how research in literature would translate onto a poster, but the experience showed me that it forces students to think about their ideas in different ways.”

Dr. Cannata also enjoyed serving as an advisor for several Honors College senior theses and one English master’s thesis. “I enjoy having in-depth conversations with students on subjects that interest me too,” she said.

Winning the annual teaching excellence award is pleasing too, but the English professor also finds it sobering.

“It is extraordinarily pleasing and surprising, but humbling too,” she said. “Because the award is bestowed by the Board of Governors at the recommendation of my peers, it is quite an honor.

“We don’t teach to win awards,” she said. “And this is not just an award; it’s something to live up to.”

In 2004, Dr.Cannata won a UNCP Outstanding Teaching Award.

She earned her doctorate from the University of New Mexico. Dr. Cannata earned a Master of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Liberal Studies from Boston University.

Besides teaching a wide range of literature courses, Dr. Cannata teaches composition. She served as faculty editor of ReVisions, the annual collection of best student essays. She also serves as a faculty advisor for Alpha Chi honor society, is a member of the Faculty Senate and holds numerous other positions in the service of the University.