Libi Sundermann has been teaching at UW Tacoma for seven years. Her courses are Modern Europe and World History. She specializes in British History but also teaches topics on Empires and Imperialism. She resides in Olympia and commutes to campus, as a lot of students and faculty do. She participates in a lot of triathlons and loves to exercise. I recently met with Libi to ask her questions regarding her recent award of Outstanding Woman and her nomination of the Distinguished Teaching Award. She says, “It’s really easy to be outstanding on this campus because of the faculty, staff, and students that we have.” Libi has recently accepted a full-time competitive lecturer position with the SHS division–let’s all welcome her back to campus for another three years!
Congratulations on receiving the “Outstanding Woman Award” and being nominated for the “2015 Distinguished Teaching Award.” How does it feel to be recognized?
It feels great. What I thought right away though is the reason I was able to get the “Outstanding Woman Award” is because I teach on an outstanding campus with outstanding faculty, students, and staff who all motivate me to work hard. But it did feel great, I have been working really hard the past couple of years particularly on lecturer issues—I know that’s one of the points Joanne Clarke Dillman made when she nominated me. It feels really good seeing that work being noticed by the faculty and by the campus. It makes me proud and makes me want to stay here at UW Tacoma even more.
Did you see the recognition coming?
I knew that Joanne was thinking about nominating me, but I didn’t know if I would get chosen or not since there are a number of outstanding women on our campus. But I was hoping.
What does being a woman mean to you?
I have a mixed bag of answers to that. One is, I do consider myself a feminist and I think women should take full part and equal responsibility in society and be allowed to do everything as well. At the same time, I recognize that women and men are not always considered equal. Women still take a lot of responsibility for family and the home life so I think women have to work really hard to balance things if they have both of them and even if you don’t have kids, women end up taking care of relatives, taking care of their parents, more often than men do, or so it seems. I think it’s great that we’re recognized for being outstanding because most of us do work really hard and do have facets of our life that we have to balance.
Can you recall an experience where because of your gender the situation played out the way it did? What was your reaction?
The one that sticks out in my mind is the when I made a conscious decision to have a baby while I was completing my Ph.D. My husband was ready to start a family and he would have been willing to wait but I realized I was in my thirties, and I didn’t know how long it was going to take to finish my dissertation. While I think my committee members in my department took my pregnancy pretty well, there is definitely a stigma against having children while in graduate school and going on to begin your career in academia. It’s something that a lot of women have tended to put off until later. But I don’t remember anyone coming straight out and saying, “You’re making a mistake,” or, “Why, why are you doing this, this is going to affect your work.” I was scared to tell my advisor, and after I told him that I was pregnant and I was going to take a year off, two other women in my program came to me and said they were also pregnant and were really worried. I will say getting your Ph.D. is hard enough without adding a newborn to the mix but all three of us did it and we had our babies and finished our Ph.D. and moved on with our family life and career. I think there are gender stereotypes against women and women who work. I still feel guilty sometimes when I have to miss work or miss a meeting because I have to pick my son up. That said, UW Tacoma is really good about that.
Have you ever experienced gender discrimination?
You know, I don’t think I have. At least I didn’t realize it because, I mean, I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Nothing overt that I can think of, honestly.
Will the recognition for these two awards impact your teaching? How?
I think it will just make me work harder just to maintain the standard I have set for myself for being outstanding. And in terms of the nomination for the teaching award, I really appreciated that. I think I am a really good teacher, but I didn’t know that I had some of the special things that someone like Ellen Moore, who won, did. She has done some really good things with getting funding, tying her instruction to broader social issues and so that motivated me to think about some bigger projects that I could possibly do in the future. So in a nutshell, it motivated me to work even harder.
What experiences in the classroom have made teaching worth it for you? Can you describe any teaching moments recently?
I think the best thing, or what makes me the happiest, is when students come to me and say that they connected something we talked about in class with something in the world around them—so that could be in another class, that could be something they witnessed in a movie, a book they read that made them think about something we talked about in class. I have my students go to the history museum pretty often and I love it. Sometimes people take their family members, their kids, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents with them and they’ve had a great experience and the student has actually taught their family member or their friend about some other things we’re talking about in class. I don’t just want people to learn the history of dates and names and things like that—I want them to see how history connects to the world around them. So that’s the number one thing.
What are a few rewards and challenges of teaching for you?
I think the rewards are the students. Watching students grow, watching them become successful, watching them gain confidence in themselves—which is definitely something that happens more often at UW Tacoma. We have so many non-traditional students, particularly women who have either come back to school or haven’t started school until later because they were raising their families as well as a lot of veterans, which tend to be men, who hadn’t gone to school or who had their schooling interrupted and they often feel like they aren’t up for it because they’re older. I’ve had them say things like, “My brain doesn’t work as fast as these young kids.” Or they don’t know the technology but most of them are actually incredibly talented and they just need to be given the reassurance and the confidence to do that in the classroom—so those are the rewards.
The challenges…there’s always that student who thinks your class is boring and lets you know in the teaching evaluation, and that’s always disappointing; there’s students who don’t do well in the course; and you’re forced to give them a grade that you know they aren’t going to like—I don’t like having to do that either. I think that’s the biggest challenge for me: I really want to reach every student and so when I don’t that is my challenge. And the best thing I can do is figure out how to engage more students. But I do think that it’s not something that could be one hundred percent. There are some students who are going to come take a course because it’s a requirement and they aren’t going to like it no matter what you do. And that’s the ongoing challenge that most of us have. Also not taking that personally—you can’t be everybody’s cup of tea.
Can you give any specifics?
Yeah, so this is always my favorite story to talk about students connecting what we talked about in class to the world around them. I had a student probably four or five years ago now. She was one of these non-traditional women who had come back to school a little later in life. And we had been talking about griots in World History I. Griots are a type of African oral historian that we talk about when we talk about Mali and we talk about how important historians were to that culture, to that society and to preserving that history. One of the things I sometimes let students do for extra credit is to go to an event on campus or in the community and then relate the experience back to the things we’ve talked about in World History. This woman went to a U2 concert and she loves U2 and she wrote the most amazing essay talking about how U2 are modern-day griots, modern-day oral historians and how learning about oral historians in this older African culture had made her appreciate U2 and other musicians who are rock musicians but also have political messages. And that’s one of my most favorite essays from a student.