When Rosemary Mullin would peer into the crystal ball shaped by her youthful dreams and secret ambitions she would see herself as a linguist at the United Nations, or in some similarly sublime setting, accomplishing difficult translations in the blinking of an eye, adroitly capturing the subtlest of meanings.
Hundreds of University of Alberta students—past and present— have reason to be thankful that she was seeing through the glass darkly. Rosemary Mullin—now Professor Rosemary Nielsen—was to find her vocation not in translating contemporary languages but in teaching classical Greek and Latin and the literatures to which they gave shape. Instead of diplomats and statesmen, the beneficiaries of her proficiency have been two decades of University of Alberta students, who have found her to be all that a good teacher should be.
In recognition of her exceptional ability and dedication to teaching, Professor Nielsen was a 1985 recipient of the Rutherford Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching at the University. Earlier this year she received a similar award from the Faculty of Arts. Most recently she won one of the three teaching awards conferred for 1990 by the American Philological Association, the pre-eminent North American society for language scholars. She is the first winner from a Canadian school in the history of these awards.
Dr Nielsen, who specializes in Greek and Roman drama and poetry (her special authors are Horace, Catullus and Virgil), was born in Hamilton, Ohio and received her undergraduate education at Carlow College, a tiny private college in Pittsburgh.
When she entered Carlow her secret aspirations prompted her to undertake the study of modern languages, but while there she relinquished her dream and diverted her passion for languages to the study of Latin and Greek.
With her undergraduate degree from Carlow came a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship enabling graduate studies. The school she chose (it was smaller than Columbia) was the University of Washington in Seattle, where the Classics Department had begun to grow under the influence of the late Dr John McDiarmid, who became something of a mentor to her. After her PhD was complete, it was he who encouraged her to come to Alberta where she could find her own wings in new surroundings. (She had considered returning to teach at Carlow.)
Professor Nielsen joined the U of A Classics Department in 1966 and served as a full-time sessional lecturer for a year before being named an assistant professor in 1967. She was granted tenure in 1972, was appointed an associate professor the following year, and became a full professor in 1980. Through the years her prodigious reputation as a teacher grew.
In a letter nominating Professor Nielsen for the American Philological Association teaching award, Classics Department chair Duncan Fishwick writes, "As the statistics show, Professor Nielsen has been consistently rated as excellent in student questionnaires over the years, scoring the highest average rating in the department . . . She is consistently evaluated as one of the best teachers in the University with a passion for communicating her interest in her own subject."
But those evaluations only begin to tell the story. Dr Fishwick speaks with wonder about his colleague's stamina. She not only finds ample time for her own students—they consistently comment about how promptly assignments are returned, frequently with more red ink than blue, and her willingness to meet with them outside the classroom—but she has been very active in outreach activities of her department and has assisted numerous students, particularly graduate students, from other departments with Latin or Greek.
For the past 20 years, Professor Nielsen has run her Department's high school enrichment program. In addition to arranging for visits by her colleagues, she herself gives numerous talks at local schools each year. "Her visits have been profitable and pleasurable," wrote one school. "In fact, students have usually urged us to arrange return visits from her—a circumstance not common with visiting university speakers."
Professor Nielsen, it seems, has the ability to establish a rapport with groups of all sizes and ages, from grade six school children to the professional and business people who take part in the Faculty of Extension Colloquium, which she has often addressed.
In 1981 she took on one of her greatest challenges —organizing and teaching the Blue Quills Native Teacher Course at St. Paul, Alberta. At the request of the course administrator she taught 19 students, most of whom hoped to go on to the U of A but had not yet completed high school. "To these she actually succeeded in teaching Homer's Odyssey in translation and in fitting ancient Greek epic into traditional Native literature," says Dr Fishwick.
The Blue Quills course involved three hours of formal instruction each morning and an additional four hours of tutorials every afternoon. In addition Professor Nielsen spent many hours in preparation—this included borrowing from the Education Library's holdings on Native folklore to acquaint the students with their own tradition. She is particularly proud that 12 of the Native students she taught at Blue Quills have gone on to become instructors at various Native elementary and secondary schools.
What makes Professor Nielsen such an exceptional teacher? There is first of all a love of teaching. ("Sometimes that was all that kept me in graduate school," she admits.) Inseparable from that is a respect for her students. She sees teaching as "a cooperative venture" — "I want the students to understand that I'm not the only one teaching" — and energetically encourages her students to think about the material being taught, to advance a position. "There is no wrong position," she stresses, "but you must be able to use the text to support whatever position you take."
She clearly enjoys the classroom and feels no need to always be in control. "My favorite times are when things happen that I can't plan," she says. And what she enjoys most is seeing her students grow in knowledge and in confidence, gaining flight as they discover their proficiency in the language or literature they are studying.
In recent years Professor Nielsen has made a major contribution to the shaping of the curriculum in the Department of Classics. In particular she has been responsible for taking an innovative, feminist approach to the Department's offerings in classical literature—Classics 361 (Studies in Ancient Women) and Classics 497 (Texts and Feminist Research Methodologies) are not offered elsewhere in Canada.
Classics 361, which Professor Nielsen teaches, is taught as part of the Women's Studies Program at the University. Subtitled "Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman," it examines the fate of violent death that is imposed upon women by the logic of Greek tragedy, and it now has one of the largest enrolments of any single course in Classics. In the three years it has been offered, enrolment has grown from 47 to 80 to 95 students in the current term.
A visit to the classroom while Classics 361 is being taught provides some insight to Professor Nielsen's remarkable success as a teacher. Here is a class of 90—some students that has not lost a feeling of intimacy. While the professor's command of her subject seems unquestionable, she does not use her erudition to dominate the classroom or separate herself from the students. Instead she encourages the students, using her knowledge to involve them, give focus to their comments and sustain their contributions.
The atmosphere is not unlike that fostered by many good teachers, but there is something that sets this teacher apart. Maybe even, surprisingly, a latent vulnerability that somehow withstands her obvious competence. Half-seen, it becomes an inspiration to the students, perhaps reminding them that she knows what it is like to be human.
In discussing her graduate student years at the U of Washington, Professor Nielsen had earlier commented that "Everybody seemed to know so much more than I did." And she had offered her mentor, Dr McDiarmid, high praise when she said, "He made me feel that I knew something."
Professor Nielsen is capable of the same with her students. This is evident in the comments they make on their course evaluations (these go directly to the Department), which frequently refer to her encouragement: "I have never seen a professor work quite so hard or care so much about her students . . .," "... an inspiration to me," "...was interested in students (and) actively encouraged original thinking," "...makes one feel secure in her ability to teach," "I have never had a prof who was so devoted to her teaching and her students," "She is enlightening and encouraging," "She not only made herself available for extra help, but often insisted that I come to see her."
The four short words penned by another student speak for a great many who have encountered Professor Nielsen at the University of Alberta. The succinct comment contains the highest praise a teacher can earn: "She made me THINK."
Published Winter 1990.