Distinguished Teaching Award
"Yesterday I learned that you can see evolution actually happening every day on the Gallopagos Islands. I never knew that." The student who imparted that bit of knowledge to theater history Professor Barry Witham is not the first to feel that Witham is as much student as teacher. His friendly demeanor invites students to explore ideas with him and, in the end, they learn almost without realizing it.
"He works as if the Socratic method were a thing of nature," says former student Derek Davidson. "We wander into class a little unsure about this fellow Artaud or Stanislavsky we have been reading (or trying to read). Barry effects a similar stance of bewilderment: 'Help me with this, I don't think I quite understand when Artaud says ...' And we are off."
Graduate student Victor Holtcamp notes that when Witham asks questions such as, "Could you clarify what this means?" and "What about this possibility?" that seem to belie his knowledge and intelligence, he opens up new, enriching lines of discussion. "He genuinely listens to students' ideas, and they respond by sharing a wealth of insights."
Sarah Nash Gates, executive director of the School of Drama, describes Witham, who is a former director of the school, as a modest, warm man, a noted historian, and a fan of the Rolling Stones, Husky football, and a good cup of coffee. "He is most approachable, and students flock to him," she says. "There is no personal agenda, no self-promotion, just a man with high standards, an inquiring mind and enough integrity for two."
Witham attributes his gracious manner to his mother. When his father died at age 10, his mother raised him and his three siblings with humor, tolerance and strong guidance.
Although his mother was a teacher, he learned how to teach by doing it himself over the past 40 years. Along the way, Witham says, he's learned some interesting things: how to listen, that students are smarter than we give them credit for and that storytelling is a very compelling and effective way to teach.
But the biggest thing he's learned is how to help students think for themselves. "My job isn't to tell them what to think, or even to share my version of the truth," he says. "My job is to help them figure out what they think the truth is."
As for the technique of feigning ignorance when guiding his students, he says that's not totally subterfuge. "It comes from not knowing everything," he laughs.
An actor and director for many years, Witham says he turned to teaching because he got married, had a baby, and realized he needed a permanent income. So he went back to school, earned master's and doctorate degrees, and discovered that he really loved teaching.
"I love being able to help folks understand how theater is related to the big picture," he says, noting that theater history is part of the politics, culture and economics of the society we live in. He also tries to teach students to be tolerant of new and different ideas, to be iconoclastic and to question everything, even what he tells them. He teaches them to be open-minded about different forms of theater. "Theaters are like churches," he explains. Just as one church is no better than another, tragedy isn't better than musical comedy.
"His classes combine suspense, laughter and hard work," says Tina Redd, assistant drama professor at UW, adding that in Witham's classes, theater history is important to the present day, "not a dusty relic to be memorized for the exam and then forgotten."
Witham says he enjoys teaching, research and writing in equal measure, and that each feeds the others. "Teaching constantly helps me find other things I'm interested in and want to write about." He just finished an article to be published in the journal Theatre History Studies about a play dealing with school shootings that is free for high school kids to produce. He's also finished a book about the Federal Theatre Project and is eagerly awaiting its publication next year by the Cambridge Press.
Bob Nydegger, '01, comments that he will not soon forget what he learned in Witham's classes. "It is his example that has inspired and motivated me to be not only a better student and actor, but a better person as well."Beth Luce