Associate Professor Tammy Birk Honored with Exemplary Teaching Award

Posted May 10, 2023

Associate Professor Tammy Birk, Department of English, has been honored with the Exemplary Teaching Award, a national honor by the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education. In addition to her English courses, Birk has been director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program since 2009. She also advises a number of student organizations, including the WGSS honorary and Otterbein’s feminist and queer-friendly zine, kate. Outside of work, Birk is involved in local political activity and activism, Buddhist meditation and study, and pit bull rescue. 

With so much passion in one individual, you might be wondering how Birk translates that into the classroom. We caught up with her to find out.  

How would you describe your teaching style

Open, curious, passionate, fully conscious, compassionate, and funny when I can be. In the classroom, I believe that we are here to unlearn and relearn, but I never underestimate how difficult it is to unlearn. I will encourage students to stay with the stuff that is the hardest to rewind, and that works best if I am a supportive presence in the classroom. At the same time, let me be clear that I am certainly not a “perfect teacher,” but I am also not interested in becoming one.  

What inspires you to teach

The possibilities for self-transformation, evolution, and expansion. The possibility that someone finds a way out of or through confusion, but also the possibility that someone becomes newly confused because they have not yet been in a position to question what they have been told. The opportunity to work and think closely with young people, who tend to be less afraid and more open than people my own age. And always, always the energy that is created when you step away from the conventional and expected. That is my drug. 

What do you hope your students take from your classes

I am very aware of the fact that students — because they are human beings, first and foremos t— may confuse what I might know about any given subject and what I know about life in general. Been there, done that. I totally understand the desire to believe that I am more convinced of things than I am, but I’m not someone who wants to feed that fantasy. I think at one point I may have been attracted to teaching because I thought I could become the person that students imagined me to be, but it did not take me long to disabuse myself of this! The truth is that I am not sure about many of the same things that students are not sure of. I don’t know why some lives seem to be easier than others, I don’t understand why human beings suffer in pointless or unwarranted ways, and I do not know why it can be so difficult to find meaningful love or work. I think it is important that I share this with students, even at the risk of frightening or disappointing them. The alternative, to me, is much bleaker: if I impersonate someone who does see life clearly, we do not get a chance to be honest and figure things out together.   

Why are you passionate about the subjects you teach

Because I only teach what I truly believe will change the trajectory of student lives. I primarily look for texts and discussions that could take a student to new places or futures, and there is nothing more exciting than watching how things play out. There’s no pressure, though! There’s no commission in it for me. I suppose that I should also say that I understand and value people who are in flux, who are contemplating — or in the thick of — change, or who honestly admit that they are at an impasse. I am a good enough teacher for those who are sure of themselves, but I may be a much better teacher for those who are searching, in process, or lost. 

What is your favorite class to teach

That is like choosing your favorite child! The truth is that I get to love something different in every class. In WGSS courses, I consistently sit with the most brave and curious students, and they push my thinking on absolutely everything. In English classes, I sit with amazing creatives and critics, and they always deliver some of the most alive conversations on this campus. In Integrative Studies classes, I get a chance to find the students who wish that they had spent more time in the humanities, and I love watching them become different people when our discussions go deep. I am probably most excited right now to develop new courses in English and WGSS next year: a course on Madness, Gender, Narrative in the fall and an advanced seminar on Witch Studies in the spring.  

What do you think students get from Otterbein faculty that they can’t get anywhere else

There are truly exceptional teachers here, teachers who would fill classes at Oberlin or Ohio State as easily as Otterbein. There are faculty here that I wish that my own daughter would get a chance to learn from; I see and hear how much they are valued and cherished by students, even years after graduation. I want that for her, just as I want that for everyone who goes to college. Otterbein is small enough that students can form honest and enduring relationships with professors, but large enough that you can keep looking for the professors that are actually right for you. I know people who left Miami (my alma mater) or Ohio State and not one professor knew their name. I’m not saying that you can’t have a great time, but if no professor knows you as a whole person, I feel like you missed the college experience. I would never want that for our students, and they won’t ever get it.  

What is one lesson you want students to carry with them not related to the subject matter

I ask my introductory WGSS class to always begin with a mantra that we speak together: “my ignorance is their power.” We repeat those words 30 times each semester so that they are imprinted, so that students start to absorb them, so that they form a kind of muscle memory.  I want students to remember that there are individuals and institutions that count on their ignorance. There are individuals and institutions that benefit from their confusion. Worse, there are those who will profit from everything that they don’t yet know how to say or name as a problem. The most important lesson? We learn so that we are no longer powerless, period. And that’s for life.