Teacher of the Year

March 31, 2004
Flath:

 Flath: "We all discover something". Photo: Jim Wallace

 
 

Everybody in the classroom knew that the figure in the photo, an emaciated man lying on a table, was Christ after crucifixion. What they didn't know was that the image was the same one that Fyodor Dostoevsky had famously used in The Idiot; nor did they know it was foreshadowed in the Dostoevsky book they were now reading, Memoirs from the House of the Dead.

In Carol Flath's literature classes, art is often an effective teaching tool.

"I love to bring the visuals into the classroom," says Flath, a Russian language and literature professor and winner of the 2003 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. She showed the photo to the students in her first-year Russian literature seminar. "Literature is really just black-and-white words on a page. You can flesh it out in many different ways."

Flath is a master at interpreting and translating those words. Students and colleagues praise her for successfully challenging students to a deeper understanding of the topics studied.

"She wrenched me from my intellectual comfort zone, forced me to ask questions I had never thought to ask, and guided and encouraged me with respect and enthusiasm," said one student in nominating Flath for the teaching award. "Her ability to have close interaction with and profound influence on students is a measure of her capacity to nurture inchoate intellects. ... She offers unmitigated support to students who wish to challenge themselves, offering sound advice, and tempering her enthusiasm with a healthy dose of realism."

Fluent in both Russian and Japanese, Flath has taught at Duke off and on since 1980. When she wasn't at Duke, she lived in Japan as a "trailing spouse," serving as a Japanese "education mama," caring for her son, Nick, who was the only foreigner in a Japanese Catholic kindergarten. While in Japan, she continued her research and readings; at one point, she even brought together all of her professional interests by presenting a paper on Anton Chekhov in Japanese.

A practitioner of what she calls "do-me reading," Flath says she believes that one's mind has to be completely open to experience a great work of literature fully. It requires intelligence, but also a certain passiveness that allows the reader to be attentive to all possibilities of readings. Dostoevsky's work, for instance, is not just about political oppression; it's about something greater than that. "It's that sort of magic place in literature where students and I meet," she says.

"Reading literature is for your soul. If you read it attentively, you will experience a kind of transfiguration," she says, noting that an author's ability to bring about that transfiguration makes great literature both powerful and mysterious. Exploring this power--on her own and with students--keeps Flath passionate about her work. She "brings her whole self to every class," and expects a lot of her students as well, she says. She doesn't feed the students answers, because she finds that "deadening."

"If I see them getting bored, I know they aren't getting it, and my agenda isn't going to work. So I stop and try something else." But when it works perfectly, "we all discover something."

She also has a "high order of respect" for students. "I feel so honored that I get to be the one that students talk to about this stuff," she says. When things really come together in class, she gets excited, sometimes banging her fist to make a point.

That enthusiasm spills over into her Russian language classroom. "I love languages. I was always a language teacher before anything else," she says. Language classes also give her the chance to lighten up. "I tell my students this is the only class at Duke that you can lie in because it isn't about the truth, it's about using language. It should be fun."

Before coming to Duke, Flath worked as a Russian interpreter, primarily under contract with the U.S. Department of State during arms-control and other negotiations in Eastern Europe. She also served in Geneva for a year as a conference interpreter on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These experiences have been valuable in her current profession, she says. In teaching language, she can point to her experiences in negotiations where word choice was crucial.

For three years, Flath has been working on a book on Dostoevsky, a compendium of papers that she has presented at conferences. All of her research, she says, "comes out of the classroom." She reads every book she teaches, in Russian, every time she teaches it. She offers her original interpretations to her students for them to think about and discuss. Out of this interaction with the students, she says, comes the ideas for her research papers.

Flath teaches outside the classroom as well. She recently moved to East Campus with her ten-year-old daughter, Maggie, where she lives as a faculty-in-residence. It's a job she loves. "Class boundaries are artificial, and I hope living in a dorm will help me reach out to students in new ways," she says. "Plus, my wonderful dorm neighbors also compensate somewhat for the absence of my son, Nick," now a first-year student at Columbia.

The teaching award, presented each year by the Duke Alumni Association, is administered by a panel of undergraduates who select the recipient from letters of nomination submitted by the student body. The award includes a $5,000 stipend and $1,000 for a Duke library to purchase books or materials recommended by the recipient.