English 1000 is a requirement for freshmen at MU, so it could easily get lost among every other class one may take during their first year. However, that’s not how Virginia Muller sees it.
The associate teaching professor uses this mandatory class to help her students deal with current social issues in and around campus, exploring topics through writing they had never touched on before.
Still, teaching English wasn’t always Muller’s first option. She began her studies as a geology major at Colorado State University and later decided to go back to her home state and enroll at MU.
“I decided that I didn't really want to do geology for all kinds of reasons,” Muller said. “Mostly because the only jobs that were open in the field of geology were working for oil companies and I didn't want to do that.”
As she continued her studies here, Muller pursued a degree in sociology. That was when she took her first women’s studies class, which sparked her interest in social issues. After a 10-year break, Muller received a degree in English with an emphasis in linguistics and a minor in anthropology.
“I couldn't stop researching, studying and it was just fascinating to me,” Muller said. “So I applied to graduate school here and then started my Ph.D. here with an emphasis in folklore and linguistics.”
Muller currently teaches two classes at MU: English 1000 (Exposition and Argumentation) and Anthropology 3150, American Folklore. What both of her classes have in common is Muller’s main interest: bringing social issues into her classroom and including them in every conversation possible.
“The student protests of 2015 really got me thinking and motivated to start addressing issues of race and racism in the country,” Muller said. “So I started going to meetings with other faculty [members] who were concerned about how faculty could respond to the concerns of the students. And I knew that I wanted to incorporate the things that I was learning into my classroom.”
She spends time learning a topic or issue before she can add it to her teaching. Muller recognizes the importance of what she is doing and wants to be prepared for it.
“I kept trying to decenter my own experience [with race],” Muller said on how she built her curriculum. “So that when I was ready to bring that kind of topic into the classroom, I felt I would be able to support all of my students through that process.”
Since then, Muller has openly talked about diversity and racism when teaching. She uses her classes as a safe space where students can explore these issues academically, maybe for the first time ever.
“I just had my students write these racial literacy narratives and some of my students would say they never thought of themselves having a race because they never had to because it’s the world we live in,” Muller said. “It’s interesting because some of my international students said that they had never thought about race this way.”
Her bold approaches are not confined to her English 1000 classes only. Muller discusses these issues whenever she can, especially in classes where this kind of conversation wouldn’t usually be expected, such as in her folklore class.
For sophomore Lily Henne, a history major in Muller’s anthropology class this semester, having Muller as a professor has made a difference in her learning experience.
“I do believe I would be taking different things out of the class if taught by someone else,” Henne said. “Professor Muller loves to bring in current events and things surrounding us in our daily lives and show how they match up with what we're talking about in class.”
Henne said her class isn't only about research papers and textbooks, but also discussions about how the topics affect the students and how certain topics continue to pop up in different generations.
Muller finds a way to actively act against social discrimination in her classes by asking her students to face the problem, open their minds to new perspectives and then write about it.
“Those of us who want to make things better, that’s where we have to be actively engaged and doing work on ourselves,” Muller said. “Listening to Native Americans, reading people of color. Color blindness is really a problem. If I pretend that I don’t see color and that everyone is equal, I’m denying the experience of discrimination, prejudice and bias that other people experience all the time. It’s not for me to say that everyone is equal because that’s not the way the world works.”
Henne believes her classes open doors to discussions about current and important events. Muller’s classes are seen as a safe space for students to explore their newly found ability to talk about something that is usually taken as a sensitive topic.
“Whether it's stuff going on around campus, the states in general or abroad, [Muller] is great to have discussions with,” Henne said. “She always lets our class banter about stuff back and forth. It's also a great way to stay up to date on what's going on in the world around us and have a place to comfortably ask questions about things one may be concerned about.”
Muller is open to any topic or intersection her students may want to bring to her classes. From women’s studies to sexual orientation, she recognizes writing as the perfect start to a deeper conversation.
Muller hopes these conversations are potential solutions to real-world problems, and she understands her role as a teacher is to approach such issues.
“With writing, I can ask people to examine this subject and write about it, which is the perfect venue and medium for exploring and dealing with individual and internal bias, fragility, conflict,” Muller said. “You can do it on paper, get feedback, revise your ideas.”
While Muller loves to teach, she recognizes that her job is to not just give students information but also help them interpret it.
“My job is to teach and that’s what I love to do. But if it [social injustices] becomes the status quo and we don’t really question it, it’s never gonna change.”
Edited by Alexandra Sharp | firstname.lastname@example.org