Theater enthusiast honored as professor of the year

Garrett Pelican

Most professors would not permit students to address them on a first name basis. Most professors would not consider investing a considerable amount of time and effort into co-curricular activities. Most professors would not sacrifice their lunch hours for interviews. But Grand Valley State University theatre professor Karen Libman is not similar to most professors.

In fact, her level of enthusiasm and methods of instruction stretch far beyond those of most professors at public universities. The President’s Council of the State of Michigan has taken notice of this fact as it recently named Libman a Distinguished Professor of the Year, along with two other professors selected from a field of 15 public universities in the state.

The award, which recognizes the outstanding contributions made by the faculty from Michigan’s public universities to the education of undergraduate students, invites each of the state’s 15 public universities to nominate a single faculty member who has had a significant impact on student learning. The recipients will be recognized at a luncheon May 13, and they will also receive cash prizes.

“I’m really happy to have won this award because I’m committed to making my students lifelong learners,” Libman said. “I want them to be curious and passionate. I want them to be knowledgeable in their subject areas, but I also want them to be citizens of the world, and I emphasize that in my classes.”

Approach to teaching

One aspect of Libman’s approach is she teaches students as a “whole person,” rather than just as an instructor.

“I’m a professor, but I’m also a mom and a wife and so many other things, so I like to teach from all of my experiences, not just as a professor,” she said.

Aaron Sohaski, a senior theatre major, said this intimacy is beneficial for Libman’s students.

“We do not feel intimidated by her; instead, we gladly approach her with issues we may find in class,” Sohaski said. “When I am in a class with Karen, I feel like I am talking to a person and not a professor. She has cultivated me as a maturing artist, and the lessons I have learned will be remembered for a lifetime.”

As for her enthusiasm for teaching, Libman said it comes naturally.

“We’re encouraged to be rigorous and to be passionate,” she said. “I’m lucky because I get to do what I love. And that sounds really hokey, but I think students can sense that when someone’s interested.”

Sohaski said they can.

“Karen is one of the most enthusiastic professors I have ever met at Grand Valley,” Sohaski said. “Her strong decorum and character are demonstrated through the love of her art. She is an experienced actor and director, and she is able to help us understand what the climate is like for an artist today. She shares stories, gives examples, and assigns practical homework that only benefits us as artists.”

Sohaski said Libman trains her students in acting with both physical and mental preparations, including training them for auditions and requiring that they keep journals for new “discoveries.”

To better their directing skills, Sohaski said Libman’s instruction allows students to “find (their) creative energies” by directing two short scenes per semester.

He added the process provides students with a measure of understanding by learning how to work with the designers and actors involved.

To gain a greater understanding of both acting and directing, Sohaski said Libman has her students write about the various shows they see throughout the semester so they can see what works and what does not.

Co-curricular activities

As devoted as she is, Libman said she demands that same level of participation from her students.

“Theater’s always about doing,” she said. “That’s not just in the classroom; it’s co-curricular. We put on plays, we have the Shakespeare Festival, we do the Bard to Go program and stuff like that.”

The Bard to Go program, which strives to bring theater and the performing arts to high schools throughout the state, visited eight regional high schools in 2008 and performed for more than 1,400 students.

Libman and other theatre faculty have also taken the program abroad: to Jamaica in 2006, to China in 2008 and to Italy in 2009.

Though she did not go to Italy with the theatre group, she went on the other trips abroad, recalling fond, albeit interesting, memories. Specifically, she cited a “learning experience” during the trip to Jamaica in which the troupe needed to have their costumes laundered on several occasions because of the heat.

“We had figured they might get a little sweaty during rehearsals and we’d deal with it,” she recalled, laughing. “The costumes got very stinky though; we had to have them sent out for cleaning.”

Even with minor setbacks such as laundry emergencies, Libman said she wants to see the program continued in Michigan and abroad.

“It really goes with my commitment to multicultural experiences,” she said. “We get to see what it is like to be a cultural ambassador.”

Now in her 10th year at GVSU, Libman has seen some of the more rewarding aspects of teaching, such as when she can see a student “get it” or understand a concept they did not before, involving students in her art and research and witnessing the progress of former students with whom she keeps in touch.

“I love it when former students come back,” she said. “I love hearing from them, hearing what they’re doing, and seeing how the adventures of their lives are going.”

She noted many of her former students have gone on to start theater companies of their own but said she just enjoys seeing students realize their “unlimited potential.”

“That’s really gratifying: to see people you know get to the next place and just keep going,” Libman said.

Sohaski said he would absolutely recommend Libman to other students.

“She is a great person and a fantastic professor,” he said. “You will work hard in her classes, but all the work you do is for a purpose. She does not believe in busy work; consequently, students feel the value in every assignment they complete. She is a mentor, a role model and after several classes with her, our relationship has even evolved into friendship. For anyone seriously interested in theatre, professor Karen Libman is a must.”

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