Carrie Tirado Bramen, who won the 1996 Milton Plesur Excellence in Teaching Award, is temporarily camped out in another professor's office looking forward to the day when she can decorate a "real" office of her own. The English teacher has plans for a wall dedicated to Frida Kahlo, a heroine of hers who shares a common heritage of Mexican mother and Jewish father and a common ideology that challenges cultural and social constraints.
This is Assistant Professor Carrie Tirado Bramen's first job since finishing her Ph.D. in modern thought and literature at Stanford University in 1994. She is in her second year of teaching at UB, where she is happy to report that "it is far more real and in touch with what's happening than Stanford." She also says that she appreciates the English Depart-ment's "openness" and its "methodological eclecticism."
The generous definition of literature she perceives here makes it possible for her and for others to be more innovative in their text selections and interpretations. The definition, she says, could range from classics to performance art to best-sellers. "What I like about the department is that it defines its field of study broadly and unprescriptively." The department likes her, too. Bill Fischer, professor of English and vice provost for faculty development, says they were "delighted" that Bramen came to UB. "We were extremely fortunate that she chose us."
The Milton Plesur award is conferred by the Undergraduate Student Association; it only takes a few moments in Bramen's classroom or office to see why she won. She and her students are very involved: on her office door is a sign-up sheet for one-on-one meetings. Inside, there are balloons, cards and homemade cookies-birthday gifts from her students. Bramen's classroom is as intimate as can be. The desks in her classroom are arranged in a loose circle so that everyone can see each other. She knows her students' names and uses them. Often she knows their life stories, as well. She uses all of this to draw them out of their shells and into the text, to elicit a response to literature and to the world. After all, "we don't read literature in a vacuum," she explained. She is far from an ivory tower academic.
Bramen, 32, taught ENG 334, American Literature from 1865-1914 and ENG 277, Introduction to U.S. Latino/a Writers during the spring '96 semester. In Latino/a Writers, the students offered personal stories, observations and insights triggered by the literature, which Bramen welcomes and encourages. "I make students think, and they make me think," she says. "I listen to them. And I take students on in class individually, while the others listen and watch, and I invite them to do the same." She did, however, take time out to define to her class the ad hominem attack and forbid it.
Bramen's teaching style is inclusive and purposefully provocative, and it seems to work. Her students call her to offer their thoughts in the event of a missed class. Sometimes they actually clamor to voice their responses to the text being discussed. Bramen says it is because she works hard to reduce the anonymity that university life often brings. "When you take an interest in them, they are so appreciative. They learn more and they give more to the course."
She feels positively challenged by the student body. "What I like about my classes and about UB is that you have minority students from diverse economic backgrounds and white students from diverse economic backgrounds, so they are less likely to just shake their heads-they aren't afraid to challenge. At Stanford, the white students often censored themselves.
"I love to see students who aren't afraid to go against the tide of opinion in a class," she says, "who speak up even at the cost of being unpopular; students who are impassioned about learning, and who can integrate the reading with experience from their own lives. They are not obsequious to get the good grade."
Although, as Professor Fischer says, "It was unusual for a very new faculty member to build such a rapid reputation," it is obvious how she did it. Her enthusiasm for her students, her material, her department, and even the city of Buffalo is as brightly vivid as a Frida Kahlo painting, and as honest and inspiring.