Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol, Ph.D., professor and chair of Trinity University’s Department of English, is the 2023 recipient of the Dr. and Mrs. Z. T. Scott Faculty Fellowship, the University’s most prestigious faculty award, which recognizes excellence in teaching and advising.
A San Antonio native, Tontiplaphol’s 18 years at Trinity have been defined by her commitment to student success and to designing and delivering well-crafted learning experiences.
“I was deeply honored to win this award,” Tontiplaphol says. “It means a lot because I know that Trinity is my forever academic home, and the work I do at Trinity that is most important to my career is teaching. [This award] really reflects the value I place on preparing and executing teaching every day.”
Tontiplaphol came to Trinity in 2005 after finishing her doctoral program at the University of Virginia. She says that although she never expected to find herself living in her hometown as an adult, she was so glad to be able to secure a position at Trinity, where she attended countless events as a child.
Tontiplaphol’s research focuses on the relationship between English poetry and 19-century culture, especially material culture, a scholastic interest that has manifested itself in her courses on British Romantic poetry; Victorian poetry; lyric form and tradition; and 19th-century literary medievalism, Orientalism, and British women's fiction. She’s also known for her upper-division, single-author seminars on Jane Austen and John Keats, which guide students through the works of these writers and any historical, political, philosophical, or personal issues that may have influenced their writing.
Colleagues inevitably compare her teaching to poetry, the subject that happens to be the nearest and dearest to her. “Like great poetry,” one colleague notes, her teaching is “meticulously planned, composed, condensed, artfully arranged, and charged to the utmost with meaning.”
“That's such a really lovely and moving comment that a colleague offered to describe my teaching,” Tontiplaphol says. “And I think it means so much to me, not just because I love poetry and I associate it with meaning and beauty, but because one of the things that I try to emphasize to my students is that poetry is something made. It's not just something that happens—it's something that's put together.”
Just as a good poet knows when to switch up their diction and syntax to change the rhythm of their poem, when planning her courses, Tontiplaphol knows when to account for how her students will contribute to the rhythm of her teaching.
“I like to think before I start a class about what the movement of the class will be, how the questions will develop and expand and move from point A to point B to point C,” Tontiplaphol says. “And, of course, I want my students to be involved in shaping that movement and progression. But I also want it to feel purposeful and conscious, as though we're deciding where to go and building on the questions that we've asked rather than taking a more scattershot approach. But there's still a place for a kind of freer verse, a place in the classroom for really wonderful, free conversations that just kind of move and hop around.”
And it’s this balance between free and artfully measured teaching that makes Tontiplaphol’s students feel both challenged and supported inside and outside the classroom.
“Dr. Tontiplaphol’s style of teaching benefits all types of learners,” says Zoe Grout ’22, an English major with minors in religion and geosciences who names Tontiplaphol’s “John Keats” and “Poetic Package” seminars as two of her favorite courses from her time at Trinity. “She carefully crafts guided questions, packets, and activities to create a framework for discussion, which helps those of us who need a little more structure contribute in a fully engaged way. But her willingness to open up for free discussion lets us embrace the directions our minds take us as we read and reconsider what we’ve read.”
Grout, who is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in information studies and English at the University of Texas at Austin, claims, like many of Tontiplaphol’s former students, that “the dynamics of her classes really taught me how to be an English major.”
And what exactly does being an English major entail? The ability to discuss your thoughts on texts or concepts effectively not only in class discussions but also in essays—a skill that sometimes takes a lot of bravery and vulnerability. And Tontiplaphol keeps this in mind when offering feedback on her students’ papers. Any written assignment graded by Tonitplaphol is always accompanied by in-text comments and a summary at the end with her constructive criticism and reasoning for the grade she gives.
“I think of those spaces, the margins of the paper and the note [I leave the students] at the end, as conversation spaces. You've just written this thing for me, and now I'm going to write back to you,” Tontiplaphol says. “I think of it as a continuation of the in-class dialogue, or for some students, depending on what works best for them, a substitution for office hours. Sometimes students are more comfortable having those conversations there.”
In addition to creating spaces for dialogue in the margins of a page, Tontiplaphol also finds it imperative that her students engage with course materials outside of the bounds of the classroom. Pre-pandemic, Tontiplaphol would celebrate the end of each of her upper-division courses by inviting her students over to her house for festivities individual to each course. For example, as part of her Keats seminar, Grout and her fellow classmates came together to watch and discuss the film Bright Star, which dramatizes the professional and personal life of John Keats.
“Going to a professor’s house for an end-of-course party always felt like a quintessential college experience, one I’d heard about but never expected,” Grout says. “But getting to take one of our class discussions into Dr. Tontiplaphol’s abode, on couches instead of plastic chairs and with cookie platters instead of metal water bottles, I felt a sense of camaraderie. What’s more, I got the distinct impression that these conversations don’t have to be classroom-exclusive. We don’t check our English major brains at our front doors, and we shouldn’t. This type of critical thinking extends to our living rooms, where we watch movies and eat and talk with our family, our friends, and sometimes our professors.”
And though she recently hasn’t been able to continue these end-of-the-semester celebrations at her house, Tontiplaphol’s group projects, like presentations comparing and contrasting Jane Austen movie adaptations with the original texts, still bring her students together in a special way, allowing them to bond over discussions of iconic films that have touched their lives like they would with friends for a movie night.
“I feel like a class is an experience that you don't get back,” Tontiplaphol says. “I'll reteach the class, and other students will maybe take another class with me, and they'll certainly take other English classes, but at this time, in this space—we won't get that back. A class is a temporal experience, and I like to make it feel special.”