Skip to main content

Christine Norris Humanities Award

Revelle College Honors Banquet

Presentation: John A. Marino, Dept. of History - May 21, 1999

 Christine NorrisWhen Tom Bond first asked me to present the first Christine Norris Humanities Award, he also requested that I submit a written copy of my remarks for future Norris Award presentations. Consequently, for students who are usually lost trying to follow my rambling Humanities lectures always delivered extemporaneously from notes, I want to apologize in advance tonight for reading from a prepared text about the length of a Humanities paper - although I did not write it last night - and for any uncharacteristic clarity or coherence.

It is my privilege to present the first of a new annual award, the Christine Norris Award for the best Humanities student completing the five-quarter sequence. Before making the first award presentation, I would like us to remember who Chris was and to have us reflect on the nature of Humanities.

I first met Chris Norris (with the trick of memory that makes it seem at the same time both so long ago and only yesterday) during the 10th week of Winter Quarter 1982 when she appeared during my office hours to introduce herself as my writing instructor and a TA for the coming spring quarter - but really to find out who I was and what I was up to, what my educational philosophy was and how she could help save the course. After two years teaching in Humanities, I had already developed a deep and abiding love-hate relationship with the course (much like all of your two-year experience?). But, unlike you, my ambivalence grows evermore each year, now that I have taught it some 17 times in the 21 years that I have been at UCSD. (I can see some of my former Humanities 3 students rolling their eyes - he's been that boring even longer than I've been alive!)

About the time I first met Chris back in the early '80s, I was convinced that the problem with the course was those interminable, infuriating, infernal lectures and what Humanities needed was more discussion among students. Of course, my early CAPEs (many recent one's too) had comments like: "Thank God for my TA, Chris Norris." Others wrote: "Only God (and sometimes my TA, Chris Norris) know what lecturer Marino is talking about." And, of course, some were less circumspect: "Chris Norris is God." So you see, Chris listened patiently and politely to my proposal, as she always did to the instructors, but deflected and dismissed the idea with her characteristic laugh. "Where are we going to find so many good discussion leaders? It really doesn't matter because good discussion leaders are good lecturers; good lecturers are good discussion leaders. The problem is not the lecture or discussion format, but how students learn." Note the word how, not what students learn; that how makes all the difference.

I have taken a few minutes to talk about lectures and discussion in Humanities, because that was what Chris Norris was about. She was the brilliant lecturer and discussion leader she was, not because she was smart - don't get me wrong; she was smart, but so are many of her fellow teachers and students. She was the brilliant lecturer and discussion leader she was, not because she worked hard at it - she did, but so do many others; not because she was passionate and compassionate, dramatic and demanding, naive and curious, relevant but never condescending, challenging but never directive - the list of attributes and virtues that she possessed, but which I have purposely framed in the negative, could go on and on. No, what she had was what all great teachers, no matter the field, have - that spark to make students want to know, to want to come back for more, to want to figure out the answer on their own, to want to get involved and engaged. Lecturing or leading discussion, examining texts or exploring ideas one on one in her office, counseling student writing or correcting student papers with comments, Chris had the ability to make students look forward to class, to become partners in their own self-education, to learn much more than books, to learn about life itself.

The credo of the good teacher - exemplified by Chris especially during the last three years of her illness - consciously or instinctively always follows Cicero, as repeated by Montaigne: "To philosophize is to learn how to die." (For those of you busy taking notes, I did not say "To philosophize is to die" or "To philosophize is to be dead"; but the title is Essays, Book 1, Essay 20. Do try this one at home!) But I don't want to fall in the trap of citing authorities, or soon Polonius-like bromides will be rolling down the aisles; for, a good teacher must always a borrower and a lender be, because a good teacher passes on knowledge from one mind to another, from one generation to another. A good teacher is measured by good learning, not the ephemeral audience response of laughs or applause, but by student risk-taking and anxiety. The goal of the good teacher is to put herself/himself out of business, to inspire students to be lifetime self-learners.

Chris herself described her philosophy in a similar way in two recent commencement addresses at Revelle graduations (her last public talk was just a year ago in June ‘98). She spoke of how we all learn from one another, incorporating ideas, expressions, and experiences exchanged across time and place, that make us who we are. Good teaching helps us hone our skills so that we can continue good learning throughout our lives when there is no teacher standing at the front of the class, no one to correct our prose, no one to brainstorm with for ideas.

We - her friends and admirers, colleagues and students - have established this award for the best Humanities student in commemoration of Chris, then, to say thank you for all she's done, but even more to pass the torch, to keep the fire for learning burning, to honor good learning by one exceptional student, and to promote good learning and good teaching by all students as they exchange ideas with one another.