Johnson awarded for teaching excellence

By Ken Goze

This is the last in a three-part series focusing on NIU professors who won the 1990-91 Presidential Teaching Professorships. Today’s article features English Professor William Johnson.

Not every exceptional teacher at NIU will win the Presidential Teaching Award, and the award’s recipients are the first to point out they are not the only outstanding teachers.

But when a search committee sat down to separate the best three candidates from a stack of nominees, they had to nit-pick, run each professor’s credentials through tighter hoops and look at their careers from every angle.

They were looking for excellence in teaching, research and outside service to students and the university, tempered by years of experience. The candidates had to have the respect of colleagues and students and the promise of continued achievements.

The committee decided William C. Johnson, professor of English, fit the bill.

Johnson, who is teaching courses in 16th and 17th century poetry and prose, said he believes strongly that teaching is a process, a relationship between students and teachers.

“When I go into a classroom, I’ll be there partly as the teacher and partly as a student. If I can effect a situation in which students are changed, then I am changed also,” Johnson said.

A soft-spoken man, Johnson is a philosopher of learning as well as a professor of literature.

To condense a complex view, he seems to believe in life as education, he believes learning takes place both inside and outside of the classroom and between students and their peers and that knowledge has a real power to change people who are open to it.

“My ultimate goal is transformation. We do that by thinking, by engaging the material. The learning process, not in a frivolous way, has to be fun. It can be hard work, but if you like the topic, there’s fun involved too,” he said.

In day-to-day classroom situations, Johnson said he tries to reduce the amount of lecture as the semester progresses, setting up small group discussions.

Johnson said one of a teacher’s rewards come when students realize that learning does not have to be a dreadful or tedious task.

“I never begin with the premise that someone has to like Shakespeare or Milton. But they learn to appreciate it, and in the process, they often come to like it,” Johnson said.

It might come as a surprise that Johnson, a man who teaches and writes books about long-dead poets didn’t always care for the subject.

“When I was in high school, I hated English. My last year, I had a girlfriend who was taking this particular teacher and said ‘Take it with me, Bill.’ At the last moment of high school, this teacher turned me on to world literature. To the epics, the Iliad, the Odyssey and Shakespeare,” he said.

Johnson said the most frustrating thing about teaching is the time limit of a semester and a full syllabus. “I would really like to spend weeks and months on each work and have a course go on for years,” he said.

Johnson said research is a necessary part of his teaching.

“My research is in the same areas I’m teaching. It’s one thing to do the research and not publish, but when you write it down, you find you have to reorganize and really prepare it for an audience,” he said.

Johnson also has his share of service commitments. He is the executive director of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honors society. He runs the nearly 440 chapters from his office in Zulauf Hall.

Johnson said he tries to put himself in his students’ position when he teaches. “For me, it’s become easier to do that. The danger I had as a new teacher years ago is that I expected students to be like the graduate student I had been,” he said.

Johnson said he has no definite plans for the semester off he has coming as part of the award.

“I really want to take that semester and go somewhere and take classes or sit on a mountain and look up and breathe deeply. But I don’t know when I’ll do it.”

He said he plans to use some of the grant money to help him finish a book on gender approaches to 16th century literature and prose.