Professor’s award is icing on Italian cake
By August, Francesca Behr will have read all of the textbooks required for the courses she’ll be teaching this fall. Behr’s methodologies may strike some as unorthodox — though she’s already read most of those textbooks 20 or 30 times, she isn’t willing to let an opportunity befall her in which she’s unable to assist a student.
“I’m Italian, and I know that my genetic tendency is to deviate,” Behr said. “So, before class, I prepare… I don’t want to be missing anything, and (I want to) be ready for any question that my students might have to ask.”
As this year’s recipient of UH’s Provost Core Award, an award based on “recognition of outstanding teaching in the core curriculum,” Behr, an associate professor of classics and Italian studies, has a lot to celebrate. In addition to a $8,000 prize, the award serves as the icing atop Behr’s layered career of research, translation studies, scholarly publications and teaching.
“This is the most important teaching award for any University of Houston professor,” Behr said. “Those who emerge at the top are either really good or really lucky.”
In addition to being a recipient of the 2014 Provost Core Award, Behr was awarded the 2010 Ross M. Lence Humanities Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes “teaching excellence” in the liberal arts. Behr has proven herself as a monolithic presence in classical studies — in addition to teaching courses in the Latin language and literature at every level, Italian and antiquities, and courses that deal with the translations of historical texts, Behr has published an acclaimed book, “Feeling History: Lucan, Stoicism and the Aesthetics of Passion,” and scholarly articles on Virgil, Roman satire, classical perceptions of women and the Italian Renaissance.
“I think that, ultimately, my duty No. 1 is toward students. I mean, how many people are going to read my books?” Behr said. “Very few — if I’m lucky, 20 or 30.”
“Our books tend to be… highly technical.”
Professors who are nominated for the Provost Core Award must submit all of their student evaluations from the past three years and submit five letters of recommendation: one from an administrator, one from a colleague and three from either current or previous students.
“I am deeply impressed that she is able to teach a foreign language like Latin in English, (which isn’t) her native tongue,” said classical studies and German senior Megan Truax. “More than any other professor I have encountered, Dr. Behr is interested in the success of her students. Every student has a chance to succeed and to attain a quality of work, which they may not have realized they were capable of.”
Behr’s self-described unorthodox teaching methods have garnered significant returns by creating students who are engaged and impassioned with classical studies — Truax and Italian studies senior Jesse Sifuentes were among the three who wrote the letters of recommendation that helped Behr win the award. Truax and Sifuentes both described Behr as a passionate and amazing instructor who left a weighty mark on their time at the University.
“She has been instrumental in my education at UH,” Sifuentes said. “She does not want to lecture for the sake of lecturing.”
Behr has maintained a sense of humility about her craft in the wake of her recent accolades, expressing the “constant weight” of her job as something that keeps her mindful of the immense task with which professors are faced each semester — cultivating and maintaining a passion in their students.
“(Doing my job) is a great privilege,” Behr said. “A lot of people are doing equally important jobs, but they don’t have these daily encounters with real human beings — it’s a moment of their lives where they need to be given a lot and inspired, and I think we as professors really have a tremendous job.”
Sifuentes described Behr’s “100 percent energy in the classroom” as a source of inspiration for her students to cultivate a passion for the languages and classical ideals hashed out in the classroom.
“She (lets) the student draw their own conclusions (on the reading material) based on what we see in the text,” Sifuentes said. “She even encourages students to disagree outright if they don’t agree. To me, this is the epitome of the humanities.”