Professor shows students that the sky’s the limit

April 06, 2009

Tears streamed down her face as she nervously scaled the ladder for her first trapeze lesson. Standing on the sky-high platform, English Professor Reanna Ursin recalls that she could barely breathe as she eyed the vast open space before her.

“The first class was really scary,” she said in a recent interview. “But my coach told me all I had to do was try.”

That was back in 2007, when Ursin began taking lessons at the trapeze school she often passed as she jogged along the Inner Harbor near her home in downtown Baltimore.

Ursin, who specializes in American and African American literature, historical fiction and literature of the black diaspora, said she was driven to try trapeze to challenge herself and to be more adventurous.

“I love order and stability. I stack things up, I label my shoeboxes, I make ‘to do’ lists. I like to feel as though I have some control over my world,” she said. “Trapeze was, literally, stepping out into thin air. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and each time I go back, I feel scared and excited all over again.”

Ursin realized she had rarely stepped outside her skill set as a scholar and teacher. She had begun to limit herself to those things she was confident would succeed.

“Trapeze was a risk in that my Ph.D. meant absolutely nothing,” she said. “I had to trust my coaches, I had to be willing to make a fool of myself, and I had to accept the possibility that I might not be the best.”

After having tried trapeze, Ursin said she’s developed a confidence that she can achieve anything she sets her mind to accomplish.

“My goal as a professor is to create for my students a similar experience in the classroom,” she said. “I want them to try out new ideas and engage different perspectives, and I have to create a classroom environment in which they trust that I'll do my part when they take such risks.”

Born in Ventura, Calif., and raised in Sacramento, Ursin said she decided in high school that she wanted to become a teacher.

“I've always loved literature, and my library card was a sacred possession when I was younger,” she said. “It wasn't until I reached high school, though, that I was really exposed to African American literature. I can remember the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’ and thinking that I wanted to strut and talk and think with Hurston’s sass and attitude.”

Ursin earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1999 from Xavier University in New Orleans, La. In 2006, she completed her doctoral studies in English, with a specialization in African American literature, from the University of Notre Dame.

Ursin, who began teaching at McDaniel in 2006, said taking trapeze lessons has made her a better teacher.

“I am more willing to take risks in the classroom,” she said. “I’ll try out a new assignment, I’ll poke fun at myself, I’ll admit to students when I’m unsure of something. Being willing to fail shows students that I value taking chances and stepping outside of one's comfort zone.”

She added that she realizes her literature courses are like trapeze lessons for many students.

“They're terrified, they're unsure of themselves, and they feel that they're taking a big risk each time they submit a paper or raise their hand in class,” she said.

By demonstrating that she is willing to challenge herself, Ursin hopes she can inspire her students to do the same. During a recent class, she said, she saw the fruits of this effort when two male students read poems aloud in class – with feeling.

“They really interpreted the poems,” she said. “They added inflection to their voices, they stressed certain words, they made decisions about where to pause for effect.”

Usually, she said, students are afraid to read poems aloud because they’re uncertain about adopting a voice and attitude different from their own. If they read out loud, she said, it’s usually monotone, barely above a whisper.

“But in this instance, both of my male students capably brought to life the voices of black women!” she said. “I was so impressed that they would take the chance of expressing something outside of themselves, and I think their classmates were as well.”

Trevor Crest ’12 was one of those male students who read that day in Ursin’s class. He said it’s Ursin’s “enthusiastic encouragement” that motivates students.

“Dr. Ursin loves when students do more than just say how they feel, but explain why they feel a certain way, what in the literature caused them to do so, and then understand that the writer’s goal was to make you feel that way,” Crest said. “Of course, as students, we do not always want to do so, especially at 10:20 in the morning. But with her positive outlook, and enthusiastic encouragement, Dr. Ursin has no trouble getting her students involved in class discussions.”

Kara Schultheis ’12, who is taking Ursin’s Survey of African American Literature II class, said that while she was initially intimidated by Ursin’s high expectations, she quickly began to see that the standards were high for her benefit.

“There is no such thing as a wallflower in her class because she incorporates the whole class in discussions. This might be very nerve-racking for certain students, but it makes them take a risk,” added Schultheis, who is a Psychology major. “Once students realize that the risk of voicing their own opinion is not that terrifying, they’re able to take the next steps in being a successful college student.”

Jessica Clinton ’11, who took Ursin’s Survey of African American Literature I class last year, said she appreciated Ursin’s innovative approach to teaching.

“Her classes are not purely lecture, they provide each student with the opportunity to express their opinions and share their ideas,” said Clinton, an English major. “She is a great professor who puts a lot of care into her classes. If the students are willing to work hard she is willing to help them.”

During her third trapeze lesson, Ursin performed a “catch,” a maneuver that required her, at precisely the right moment, to release the bar and shoot her arms out in front of herself so that her coach – who was hanging by his knees from another bar – could catch her by the wrists and swing her away.

“It took a lot of trust to let go of the bar and believe that my coach was going to catch me,” she said, “And that's essentially what I ask of my students.”