Teaching Lecturer, English
Although his great grandfather was the first president of Smith College, his great-uncle was the fifth president of Amherst College, and aunts, uncles, and parents for as far back as anyone remembers have been educators, Burrett McBee never thought he’d grow up to be a teacher. “Because of those models in my upbringing, I was in awe of teachers,” he says. “The idea that I might be one? No, I couldn’t do that.”
But he did, and for that, generations of students are grateful.
There wasn’t a single “a-ha” moment that made McBee decide to teach. There were smaller moments: Having great teachers, spending a year abroad studying literature in Oxford, England, his persistent curiosity about the world around him. “There’s always a part of me that wants to share. And I think, deeply, the teacher is one who shares,” he says. “A good teacher doesn’t teach. You explore, discover, and serve others.”
With his love of story and words, not to mention his theatre background, McBee brings literature to life for his students, and helps them connect the material they study with the stories of their own lives. But, McBee is quick to point out that it doesn’t come easily. “This challenge to connect, to—with my students’ help—weave the fabric of our class together into a rich garment is difficult,” he says, “but the rewards are great.”
McBee’s students appreciate his ability to truly listen to them, his availability to provide extra help, and his efforts to rephrase questions and discuss answers to bring his students closer to understanding.
Over the course of his career at PSU, McBee has taught a variety of courses from English Composition to Murder, Mayhem, and Madness: Reflections of the Self and Society in Literature. He’s had the joy of opening students’ minds to poetry, and helping them learn to fall in love with Shakespeare. He also likes to shake things up a bit every now and then by joining innovative collaborations with faculty across campus, such as the course Exploring Contrasts, which he co-taught with faculty members Bob Swift from the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and Michael Heffernan from the Art Department. “We would explore ideas, contrasts between classical and romantic, between control and freedom, and so forth. That was a truly exciting class,” he says. He’s looking forward to more opportunities for collaboration with faculty across the University. “There will always be ways of collaborating with another discipline to pursue ideas, to pursue essential questions, and that’s critical.”
The greatest reward of teaching, says McBee, is when he sees that moment when a student really connects with a lesson. “You can’t miss it. It’s like the temperature has changed in the classroom, or the temperature has changed in the conversation with the student,” he says. “When the student connects the material you’re discussing with their own story, then you’ve succeeded as a teacher. Because they’re going to remember that, long after they’ve left the classroom.” –Barbra Alan
Photos by Kaleb Hart ’11