Leslie Donovan said she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3 years old, and although she had supportive family and friends, the disease made her feel isolated as a teenager, but has helped her career as a teacher.
Donovan is 2012 Presidential Teaching Fellow, the highest award faculty can receive at the University. According to the Office of Support for Effective Teaching (OSET), the award includes a $1000 increase in base pay for two years.
As a result of the arthritis, Donovan now uses a wheelchair.
Donovan said she felt out of place growing up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s because the general public did not view people with disabilities as assets.
“People cared about them, but there weren’t resources. They weren’t considered really valuable parts of society,” she said. “The society around me told me I wasn’t OK the way I was, so that translated, for me, into being really shy.”
Donovan said her shyness followed her into college, and because of it she found she was not as adept at expressing herself in front of others as some of her peers.
She said her disability has allowed her to better understand the less recognized parts of society and made her open to different people, ideas and ways of doing things.
“I also think that because I grew up as a kid with a disability at the time I grew up, that that placed me, kind of, on the borderlands of society, on the borderlands of culture,” she said.
“I have a lot of respect and concern and interest in people of all types who feel like they are also on the periphery of society.”
According to OSET, award recipients serve a two-year term in which they are expected to share with the rest of the University what they’ve learned from the successes and failures they experienced as teachers. Recipients also choose one area on which to focus and improve within the University. Their department may receive up to $3,000 to initiate a plan.
Donovan said she will focus on quiet students who are smart and have good ideas, but struggle with social interaction and public speaking.
“The project that I proposed has to do with encouraging, assisting and helping faculty, teaching assistants and lecturers to think about strategies to assist shy students in getting the skills they need to be able to share their ideas and collaborate well,” she said. “So that they can achieve at advanced levels if they want to.”
Donovan has been teaching since 1986. She won the Alumni Association Faculty Award in 2007, an honorary membership to the Maia Chapter of the Mortar Board in 2010, and the Honors Outstanding Teacher of the Year from the University Honors Program last year.
Donovan was recognized at the awards ceremony for the rigor, creativity and originality of her courses. Over the years, Donovan has taught a wide range of courses, from magazine-making courses to courses on Anglo-Saxonisms found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
One of Donovan’s graduate students, Ilse Biel, said she took a course where students from the honors program help produce and edit “Scribendi,” a magazine with undergraduate students’ works of fine art and nonfiction. Biel said the course was unique and pragmatic.
“Where some of the other courses are concerned, like math and things like that, yeah I use that, but not really consciously,” she said. “But with this particular design course, every time I have to design a flier or look at a design then I sort of hear Leslie’s (voice).”
Provost Chaouki Abdallah said Donovan shows that concern for students can help them succeed.
“You need to care and you need to set high standards, you cannot lower your standards,” he said. “Students don’t want to just get an ‘A’, but you have to show them you care and this is it. She epitomizes that.”