Listening to students' ideas

By Jay Cormier

Professor Ben Railton values his students' ideas. (Point staff photo)

As students, it is easy to feel intimidated by the professors who stand behind the desk.  After all, are these not the people who ultimately decide whether we end up as high-powered executives or living in a box on the side of the street?  This anxiety often leads to the desire to cower in a corner rather than talk to a professor or raise your hand in class.  However, dare to tread these waters and what you find will surprise you: Your professors are not only people with stories to share, they are as devoted to your success as you are.
Take, for example, Professor Ben Railton of the English department.
“For me,” says Railton, “teaching is about bringing out a student’s ideas. When students participate in group discussion, their ideas can be heard and strengthened … and everyone can benefit from the discussions.  [I want the class to be] fully democratic and meaningful for everybody.”
Sometimes, though, getting shy students to participate can be a difficult task.
“The most difficult challenge is to help people find their voice in the classroom; I am always trying to figure out new ways to help people so that they know their voice is important,” says Railton. “At the end of the day, student ideas are the most important ideas generated in the classroom.”
Railton, who has been teaching at Fitchburg State for six years, has instructed nearly 20 classes on topics ranging from entry-level writing to graduate-level historical fiction and literary theory.  He especially enjoys ethnic American literature, having made the syllabus his own in the three years he has been teaching it.
“The class asks students (and me) to connect our own families and identities to those of the folks we read, and it makes for some very rich, complicated and great conversations and papers.”
Railton credits his own family and upbringing with his passion for the subject matter he teaches.
“My folks were teachers; my dad is a college professor and my mom, a preschool teacher. Growing up in Virginia, I had an obsession with history at a very early age that helps me teach classes like American studies, where I can use both English and history in a lesson.”
Railton’s enthusiasm is not limited to the classroom.  He is the president of the New England American Studies Association, as well as a scholarly adviser for the American Writers Museum. Among his list of 12 publications is his second book, “American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama,” due out in April. “Partly [this book is] my favorite because it’s the new baby,” Railton said. “But what I really love about it is the ideas originated entirely in class conversations here at FSU.”
Railton is also the creator of the English department’s Coffee and Book Extravaganza events. “They are very much a communal and collaborative event,” Railton said. “Faculty bring in all of the books and food and goodies and the students do the rest, including hopefully bringing some books to add to the mix. There’s no outside funding, so it depends on all of us and our generosity and sense of community to make them work.”
Railton has some sound advice for students with professor-worries. “Talk to us! Our central goal is to connect to and help strengthen your voices and perspectives. Talk in class whenever you have the chance, too. It’ll also help the class be more successful and fun overall, and that’s pretty important too.”
For more information on the Coffee and Book Extravaganza, click here!