AUA Faculty Spotlight: Melissa Brown
This week the AUA Newsroom begins a series of faculty spotlights highlighting the talented men and women who make AUA the gem that it is. Our first spotlight is an interview with Melissa Brown, the chair of AUA’s BA in English and Communications program.
Ms. Brown holds a BA in Theatre Arts from Brown University in New York, an MFA in Acting from New York University, and an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from American University of Armenia. She has been teaching English at AUA for 11 years. Here she shares with us her experiences as a student, an educator, and as an AUA community member.
Why did you decide to come to Armenia, and why did you choose to work at AUA?
The short answer is that I was living and working in New York, and I met my husband, and he’s Armenian. So we decided to get married. I always knew he was coming back here. So we came to Armenia and I thought, “What do people need from me here?” And I started teaching English. That’s how I first came to AUA, and since that I’ve sort of expanded.
What is one exciting project you are working on here at AUA?
One of the most interesting things that I’m working on right now is teaching an advance section of Freshman English. Freshman English is not a course about learning how to speak English. It’s an English course that you would take in any university in the US. So we invited one group to take that class early. All AUA students are going to have to take it, so it’s a really big course. It’s going to be 16 sections. We’re doing one group this spring and I’m working with them, figuring out what works really well what we need to do. It’s like a research project and it’s been a really interesting experience for me working with the students.
What is unique about AUA?
Students love coming here. They feel good here. This feels like a home to them. I know they do, but I’m not exactly sure why. You’ll have to ask them. I want to make our program a home for our students.
In your experience, what makes AUA students unique?
The students are very enthusiastic, engaged, and not too cynical. They want to learn, they’re here to learn, and they’re interested in learning. And they are interested in learning in new ways. Some of the stuff that we do at AUA is unfamiliar to students, but they accept it in one day. We do, for example, a lot of group work. It’s very interactive. It’s not just me giving a lecture and students listening. It only takes one day to develop these new interactive habits. And students are really ready for that, and they are excited about that too.
What do you admire in Armenian youth? What changes would you like to see in them?
I like their involvement. Their interest in things, in doing things, that they are goal-oriented, enthusiastic. What bothers me in young Armenians is that sometimes students come to me and they say “I really want to study this, but my parents want me to do that.” I think by the time you are ready to go to university, you should be ready to make your own decisions about your life. It’s not that I’m saying necessarily disagree with your parents, but it’s important that you enjoy your career. Your work life is going to be very long, so you need to do the thing that you love to do. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to love every part of it. Part of my job is writing grades and other stuff that I don’t like, but most of my job I really like. I love being in the classroom. For example, if I go to a doctor, I want someone who likes to be a doctor. Otherwise you should get out.
Why do you think young people in Armenia should choose AUA?
You know, for many reasons. We have really good faculty, we have really good programs, and we are very student-centered. We care what happens to our students; we listen to our students. We have good resources and an international connection. They need to come our open houses, talk to their friends, and see how they feel here. And if they feel good here—and I think that they will—then I think they should come here.
What should students expect to gain from a university experience? What should they expect to gain specifically from AUA?
My program is English and Communications and sometimes I am asked what kind of job students can have. And the answer is, everything from marketing and PR to journalism and filmmaking, to writing and translating. And at the same time, when you look at what the jobs are going to be five, ten years from now, we don’t know. Now technology is changing the way we interact with people. Today is different then it was five years ago, except of course for some basics. But I think that a university needs to prepare students for careers that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. There’s been a lot of research saying that in the future people will change their careers lots of times. So education needs to make you flexible; education needs to make you open; education needs to give you the sort of basic experience that you need to be able to interpret anything and go in different directions.
And at AUA we’re trying to do this. We don’t want to just create somebody who’s really good at one thing. We want to create educated people. Suppose you’re a genius computer programmer but you don’t anything about politics. Well, that’s bad because you can’t participate fully in the decision making of your country. Armenia is such a small country, and I think AUA plays a really important role in Armenia. So we need to help our students develop the skills to understand everything that’s happening, and to really participate actively in shaping and creating this country.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Where were you born? Where did you study?
I was born in Kansas, but I didn’t live there very long. I grew up on the East Coast, in Philadelphia. I went to college at Brown University and my major was Theatre Arts, but I studied a lot of different kinds of things there. After that I did an MFA at NYU, Master of Fine Arts in acting, and then I did an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Do you have any memorable experiences as a student? What was student life like at your university?
As for my undergraduate experience at Brown, there were so many wonderful classes and amazing professors. The students and the friends that I made there were among the most important people that I’ve met in my life and I’m still in touch with them. One of the biggest things there for me was the extra-curricular life—in particular, we had a student theatre. There was a faculty-run theatre, which I was involved in, but there was also a student-run theatre called Production Workshop. And that was amazing. We did everything from budgeting, to producing, to lighting, to set design, to cleaning, to directing, to acting. So we had the experience of running our own theatre, making all the decisions, being responsible for everything. That was very important to me.
What were your interests back then?
I’ve always been interested in politics. In my studies, I was more interested in the arts, literature, film-making and most of all, theatre.
What difficulties did you have as a student?
Nothing really, my undergraduate experience was wonderful. It was an American university so we lived in a dorm. We did everything together, all kinds of clubs and activities. That’s something that I want to make sure that students have in addition to the classroom. Nothing bothered me—the only thing that bothered me was that it was too much. You know, the classes were amazing, extra-curricular stuff was amazing, and the people were amazing. And I often think, I almost wish I had been a little bit older when I had that experience, a little bit more ready to take it all in.
What were your hopes and dreams as a student?
I was dreaming of becoming a great actress at that time, but one of the things that made me leave acting aside was that as an actor you’re always listening and following other people’s direction and I like being more in control, more involved in decision-making. Also, as an actor you’re always thinking about yourself. As an actor you are your instrument, so you’re always thinking about yourself, and I wanted to think about other people. I felt like I needed to work more directly with other people and that’s why I really love teaching. Because in teaching, you’re working with yourself, but you’re also working with other people, and that’s what I really love. But creatively it has some of the same processes. Education is very creative. Planning a course, planning a lesson, it’s very creative and the interaction is also very satisfying.
And I’ve sort of come back to the theatre also, because here at AUA we’ve done a some theatre recently, and plan to do a lot more in the English and Communications program. There are going to be literature classes and theatre classes, in addition to studying public relations, copywriting, and things like that. So it all comes back together.
What is the most important thing that you learned in college? What has made the most profound impact on your life?
What I wasn’t good at in my undergraduate experience was asking for help. I thought of myself as a pretty smart person, so I thought that I had to know everything. And I remember one experience in particular that has really stayed with me. I was having trouble keeping up with the reading because there was so much reading. And the teaching assistant must have noticed that and she approached me after class and she said,“Do you know how to read?” I know that she wanted to help me figure out strategies for handling so much reading, but I was afraid to admit that I really didn’t. So I said “Of course I do”. And that was it. To this day I regret that I didn’t say to her “No, I’m having trouble. Can you help me?” Then she would have given me good advice and I could’ve used that advice, but I was too proud or too stupid, really, to ask for help. So that’s something to think about: even if you’re the best student in the world, even if you’re the smartest student, you’re going to have some area where you need help, and you need to be able to ask for it, and you also need to be able to take it when it’s offered. So that was something that I’ve learned.
Why do you think education is important? In your opinion, what defines a good education?
We’re always learning. Every day you can learn from your neighbors, from the people that you meet in your backyard. You can even learn from animals. You can learn from everything. Formal education, like schools, colleges, is only one part of education. Education doesn’t start in college, and it doesn’t end in college either, but I think college can be the place where you learn a lot about how to learn. It’s very important to develop the ability to learn, the exposure to different ideas, and the good habits of always inquiring. One thing, for example in liberal arts colleges—and I think this is very important—is that it’s not just one professional direction. It’s exposure to philosophy and science and math and ancient thinkers and modern thinkers and all different kinds of ways of analyzing our world and understanding our world and contributing to our world. And I think a university has a very important role in making all of that happen. A university is a workshop for learning.
In your opinion, what defines a good student?
Good students are curious. They’re interested in learning. That’s the most important thing–that they love to learn, they love new things, and they love ideas and developing new skills. Good students are engaged, they’re in dialogue. They’re capable of being in dialogue with their teachers, with their readings. They’re not passively receiving knowledge, but they’re interacting. If there’s something they don’t understand, they say so. If there’s something they like, they say so. If there’s something they don’t like, they say so. And I think a good student is also reflective. They think about their own learning. They think about what they’ve learned and what that means. In a class I’m teaching now, we’re reading the letters of Seneca, the Roman philosopher, and he said, “I’m learning to be a friend to myself.” And we talked about how important that is. A good student should be a good friend to himself or herself. Good students know how to help themselves and guide themselves and not to be too critical. To push themselves, but not criticize themselves. Good students are their own teachers.
And you’ll notice one thing that I haven’t said is that good students are really smart. There’s too much of saying, “Oh, I’m smart, I’m a good student, I’m clever.” No, I can’t really judge your intelligence. I can see what you do in the classroom, I can see how you engage in ideas when you interact, when you speak up, and when you think. That’s how you need to be a good student.
Does education depend more on how something is being taught, or on the person who is being taught? In other words, does it depend on the teacher or the student?
Well, you can’t separate teaching and learning. If I teach something, but you don’t learn it, well guess what? I haven’t taught it. So those two processes are in an interactive relationship; it depends on both. However, I think good teaching should bring about good learning. You can have bad teachers and good learners, but I don’t think you can have good teachers and bad learners. If your students are bad learners, then you’re not a good teacher.
Can you recommend any online resources that you think students would find interesting?
Yale has a wonderful free series of academic lectures. You can find out about anything that interests you. I was listening to history of philosophy recently. They have all different kinds of things: http://oyc.yale.edu
Another thing that I love listening to is National Public Radio. For people who are really interested in language and linguistics, there’s a wonderful program called Radiolab Words: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/
For people who are interested in Media & Communications, there are weekly programs: http://www.onthemedia.org/
For people who are interested in politics and also in theatre there is a wonderful interview with Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln,” the movie: http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/13/172153476/npr_172153476.mp3?_kip_ipx=1658188587-1363767650