Faculty Focus: Associate Prof. Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier Interview

Associate Prof. Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier (English) at UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus has won the prestigious 2018 Alliant Energy Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award. Only three winners are chosen on an annual basis. Funded by an endowment from Alliant Energy, these $3,000 awards are given to extraordinary teachers at UW-Madison, UW-Platteville and UW Colleges. Learn more about the Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award.

The UW-Green Bay English Department is honored to feature Dr. Pilmaier on our blog. We got the chance to speak with Dr. Pilmaier about her big win, teaching and, of course, the subject of English.

First, some background on Dr. Pilmaier:

A native of Menomonee Falls, she went on to attend UW-Oshkosh, where she double-majored in English and International Studies and minored in German. She went to Marquette University for her M.A. and Ph.D. in Literature, with a specialty in Irish and British Studies, trauma theory and the novel. 

On to the questions:

Q: First of all, congratulations on winning the Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award. What does it mean to you to win this award?

Dr. Pilmaier: I cried when I got the email that I was one of the three chosen. The Underkofler is an extremely prestigious teaching award and requires that your application materials are vetted by colleagues from all over the state who are exceptional teachers. The competition is stiff, and it is an incredible honor to even be in the running for the award, much less win it. For me, this award signifies the amount of support that I have received from my family, friends, mentors, colleagues, and institution throughout my entire academic career as well as the amazing students that I have had the opportunity to teach and learn from because, without them, there is no way that I would be the teacher that I am today. I was lucky enough to be chosen as a Wisconsin Teaching Fellow Scholar twice, and both years were transformative for my pedagogy in terms of first becoming more student-centered (for the first year that I attended in 2012-2013) and then in 2017-2018, engaging with my institution-wide colleagues on utilizing student-based research (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) to enhance the student experience in my classes. I am hooked on SOTL research and have been incorporating it into my courses since 2010, and this award helps to confirm for me that what I have been doing with my students is making a positive impact on them. Honestly, this award means everything. My research interests are varied, but all center on gender equity issues: using rape culture to teach rhetorical analysis in the composition classroom, gender disparities in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and teaching gender equity using the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

Q: How long have you been teaching at UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus? What do you like the most about teaching at this school?

Dr. Pilmaier: As stated above, I started here in 2009. Our campus was formerly a campus in the UW Colleges, which is an institution dedicated to the first two years of college, with the intent of getting students to their Associate of Arts and Sciences degree or transfer to a four-year school. As an institution of access, we have a high percentage of First-Generation students (always at least 65%), non-traditional students, ELL (English Language Learners) and developmental students. I absolutely love this group of students because a majority come in wondering if they are college material, and we have the ability to help them understand that they are exactly where they need to be. We can mentor them and help them on their path, but ultimately, we help them to see that they are the force behind their own success. It is a privilege to work with this population of students.

Q: Why did you decide to enter the teaching profession?

Dr. Pilmaier: I always wanted to be a teacher. My favorite thing to “play” at home was school, and I did that even through sixth grade (I was a nerd, I will admit it). I then had multiple teachers through high school and college who encouraged me to go into teaching, but I freaked when I heard stories from friends at Oshkosh who had to spend semesters taking classes where you had to design bulletin boards. I knew that was not for me. I didn’t even consider college teaching until one of my professors suggested that I take the GRE and apply to grad school. It blew my mind that I, the daughter of factory workers, could possibly do that. When I was awarded my TA-ship at Marquette, it was my opportunity to see if teaching was for me, and it was a perfect fit from the beginning. I can’t imagine a better job and I feel lucky every single day to do this.

Q: What kinds of teaching strategies do you use in your classes?

Dr. Pilmaier: I’m taken with Freire’s liberation method of education, so everything is problem-posing and student-centered. I want my students to understand that they have a voice, that voice is important, and it can affect social change. It is my job to ensure that they have the skill-sets that they need in order to effectively convey their ideas to their intended audience to make those messages clear, but they do all of the hard work. I get to enjoy the process. J. In literature, I get to help students understand the conventions of the discipline, see how literature speaks to the human experience, and show them how literature can be transformative in their lives. Could anyone have a better job than I do? I doubt it.

Q: Lastly, what do you enjoy the most about teaching the subject of English in particular?

Dr. Pilmaier: Wow, what don’t I enjoy about teaching composition and literature? There is an energy that comes from a discussion of ideas, and every day I learn something essential from my students. Of course I am biased, but I believe that I teach the most important discipline that students can learn because I help them to take ideas in their head, refine those ideas through research, shape those ideas through the skill-sets I can teach them, and watch them grow their confidence as global citizens as they present those ideas to a global community. I’m incredibly blessed to be able to do this every day. I must have done something incredible in a past life to deserve this life.

Once again, congratulations Dr. Pilmaier on winning this prestigious teaching award!