That night, Fadojutimi and another student labored to transform their play. After the performance at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Fadojutimi was elated. She knew their play had remained true to the poem while imbued with its own power. She savored the pumpkin-chocolate-chip bread Cognard-Black baked for the class. “It was the happiest thing,” Fadojutimi said.
Cognard-Black does this to people — raises them up, by expecting them to rise. Earlier this month, those efforts were recognized on a national stage: The English professor was honored with the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, a prize given every other year by Baylor University that was created by a graduate grateful for the impact teachers had on his life.
For a profession that can feel frustratingly invisible, and for a small public honors college tucked away in a lovely but remote part of the state, the spotlight is welcome.
And it’s an award with heft: It grants $265,000 to Cognard-Black and $35,000 to support teaching in the English department at St. Mary’s.
“I’m over the moon about it!” Cognard-Black said, delighted to have teaching, and her liberal arts college, honored in such a big way.
Students light up with her, said Michael R. Wick, provost and dean of faculty of St. Mary’s.
“JCB is a type of professor I’ve honestly never had before,” said Marie Keller, a senior from Cumberland, Md., using the nickname students have for Cognard-Black. She was intimidating, because her standards were so high. Keller’s first paper came back covered with ink, she said, drenched with critiques. But Cognard-Black is so warm and supportive and joyful that students come to understand the expectations are a compliment, not a threat.
She’s creative, upending traditional teaching methods and immersing students in new experiences. She’s enthusiastic and open, making clear that she’s learning alongside her students.
She shares her rejection letters. She laughs a lot. And she brings food. A whole lot of eating happens in her classes, whether pumpkin bread to celebrate final projects, candy from the bowl that gets passed around when discussions get too heavy, or spaghetti marinara a student might make in a course examining the role food plays in literature and culture.
In her first class, Keller said, Cognard-Black arrived with a loaf of challah bread, which they broke around the table to launch a discussion about sharing food and the ways it connects people. “I hadn’t seen a professor so excited to talk about something before,” Keller said.
Food is history, and a way to articulate our shared cultural memory, Cognard-Black said. Students get excited thinking about it in a new way: “This isn’t just me slicing a tomato and eating it. I’m thinking of the origin of a tomato,” she said, and the way it was seen by different cultures — as poisonous, as an aphrodisiac, as a threat.
They talk about eating disorders, and about people who don’t have enough to eat. Students volunteer at a soup kitchen and a farm near the rural Southern Maryland campus. They visit a chocolate manufacturer. They cook for their classmates.
Tuajuanda C. Jordan, the president of St. Mary’s, went to the Cherry Award lecture that Cognard-Black gave on campus when she was named a finalist. It was late in the evening, and Jordan, a biochemist by training, was not drawn to the topic of food in literature. “I was absolutely floored,” Jordan said, by how immersive the experience was. “It was captivating.”
Cognard-Black said she had powerful mentors from her earliest moments — although she may not have always appreciated that.
She began teaching despite herself. “With my parents both having PhDs in English and being English teachers, it was the very last thing I wanted to do,” she said, laughing.
She took a roundabout route through her education, but even in graduate school, she continued to enjoy her English classes so much that she “sidled over to get a degree in creative writing,” and eventually a doctorate in 19th-century Anglo American literature. “It was in the blood,” she said.
“My mother would do these crazy things with her students all the time, getting them up and moving,” pushing and bending the boundaries of the genres they were reading, she said. That’s the kind of thing that inspired Cognard-Black to be creative. Sometimes that means asking her students to take passages from an essay and convey the ideas in a single cell of a graphic novel. Other times, it’s learning about poetic meter by waltzing to a Dr. Seuss book read aloud.
At no part of her life, she said, was she without inspiring teachers, from her childhood, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley who taught her at Iowa State University, to her colleagues at St. Mary’s.
She loves that teaching is never the same because students are always bringing new ideas. That’s also its biggest challenge, she said.
After years of iPhones, “people’s brains are wired differently now,” she said. “I can’t take for granted I’ll have people in my classroom that have grown up reading, or even storytelling in the way that I think of. That’s good for me,” she said, “but it’s hard,” as she works to maintain the traditional rigor but adapt to new ways of thinking. “Part of what is powerful about literature is it evolves, and it has to evolve.”
The Cherry award includes a semesterlong residency at Baylor, so Cognard-Black will teach there in the fall. But first, she’s off to Europe, where she’ll be teaching this spring as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in American Culture at the University of Amsterdam.
The award is jaw-dropping financially, Cognard-Black said, but just as powerful symbolically: “The Cherry award makes teaching visible — it says teaching matters. It reminds the nation that each and every one of us is indebted to those mentors. In whatever way — in a classroom, on a soccer field, in a garden, in a kitchen, in a garage. Someone taught you something, and what they taught you changed you utterly.
“Robert Frost said, ‘I am not a teacher, but an awakener.’ It’s good to be reminded that teaching awakens us. It wakes us up and really has the capacity to transform us.”
She paused, and laughed. “I hope that’s not too schmaltzy. I do believe it!”