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5 Minutes with Marla Polley

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See what our faculty members surround themselves with every day. Explore Professor Marla Polley’s office! #facultyfriday

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Department: Western Heritage
Title: Western Heritage Instructor
Best Office Artifact: Yarn ball for students

Longtime Western Heritage instructor Marla Polley is a favorite with Carthage students. In addition to teaching the first-year Western Heritage seminars, she regularly teaches a popular J-Term course about HIV/AIDs. We sat down with Professor Polley to discuss her path to teaching, why she loves working with college students, and the challenges and importance of teaching about AIDS.

How did you get into teaching?
I had a background in theater and was working professionally in that field. I noticed what I really liked doing was working with the college students who were part of my crew. I loved talking to them and teaching them things. I thought to myself, “I think I’d rather do that for a living,” so I went back to school and came to Carthage.

The reason I like working with students is that it is always different. You can’t rest on your laurels. There are always opportunities to be creative because you are constantly problem-solving. For example, my students in one class were struggling to read a certain passage and we looked at different ways we could approach that reading. It’s always changing.

What is your favorite class to teach?
I only teach two courses, Western Heritage and a J-Term course called Understanding AIDS, and I like different things about each class. I love the J-Term format and seeing the students every day. You can really see their growth during the month. Teaching the subject matter is fascinating because it is always changing. I love teaching Western Heritage and writing. Unlike the rapid growth in J-Term, it’s fun to see the slow steady growth throughout the semester.

I also like teaching Western Heritage because it is longer and I see the students for longer. I love seeing students get excited about the texts. I was recently talking to a student, and they were thinking about Plato’s “The Republic,” and I think that’s amazing. It’s hard to think of something I wouldn’t enjoy teaching because it is something I really like to do.

What is an unexpected path you have taken at Carthage?
I am fascinated by how both formally and informally knowing people on campus makes us all do a better job. I really think when colleagues sit down and talk together about teaching, we can come up with cool stuff. I thought it would be a solitary pursuit, but it is a group pursuit. Students and staff have so much to teach each other. That’s something I love about Carthage.

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Students and staff have so much to teach each other. That’s something I love about Carthage.

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What are some times you have had to push students out of their comfort zones?
That’s pretty much every day. Edging students out of their comfort zones is all I want to do. I think that students often look for the right answer. When they find out there isn’t one, and they have to think about what their right answer is and how they back that up, it is very uncomfortable. The students in my AIDS class have to step out of their comfort zones when discussing the subject matter. There is a ton of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and they have to learn how to talk about it comfortably. They have to think about why that stigma exists and if they have any barriers or boundaries of their own that they have to overcome. One thing we talked about a lot during this J-Term was what the barriers are to fully understanding and expressing the information they learned. HIV education in schools is terrible, so students have to deal with the discomfort of learning about something that people don’t want to talk about.

Why did you decide to teach a class on AIDS?
I have a background as an HIV/AIDS educator. I started teaching the class in the ’90s and at the time, there were a lot of people who were being infected with HIV and dying of AIDS, and there was not a lot of information about it. What we knew then versus what we know now is very different. It is amazing what we have learned about this disease. here is still a stigma now, but it was much worse back then.

I had personal friends and teachers who died from AIDS and I just want to make changes, 22 people at a time. Many of the students who have taken that class have gone on to careers dealing with HIV/AIDS. One former student is working on medications for AIDS.

What are some hidden hobbies or talents that students may not know about?
I like to go hiking. I like to craft and create. I used to be a tap dancer and sometimes I will go and take dance classes.

What is a piece of advice for incoming students who are taking classes like Western Heritage?
Have the courage to experience discomfort. If things feel hard and you feel like you’re not getting something, that means you are working really hard, so don’t be afraid of the discomfort.

— Interview by William Dowell ’22; Photography by Jenna Link ’22

  • Quick Facts

    • Carthage is named a Best Midwestern College by The Princeton Review (2020), a designation given to only 25 percent of four-year schools.

    • The Tower, Carthage’s newest residence hall, provides some of the best views on campus — if not in the Midwest! In addition to #carthageviews of the lake from seven stories up, residents enjoy suite-style living and two floors of shared campus spaces for gaming, cooking, group meetings, or quiet studying. Learn more about all housing options.

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    • Things look new at Carthage because they are. Our science center, student union, athletic and recreation center, and numerous residence halls have all been constructed or newly renovated in the last 15 years.

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    • So the lake is kind of a focal point, but there’s a lot more to love about our campus — like the fact that our more than 80-acre campus is also an arboretum and wildlife sanctuary. Focused on keeping campus lush forever, we plant between 50 and 75 new trees every year from a variety of species.

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    • Abraham Lincoln was an early Trustee of the College, and U.S. Secretary of State John Hay was a Carthage alum. The two still have a proud place on our campus. Spend some time with them in our Sesquicentennial Plaza. On warm days you’ll find professors leading their classes here.

    • Come to Carthage; hear yourself think — think … think …
      Legend has it that Sesquicentennial Plaza holds a perfect echo. Just stand with both your feet on the “1847,” face Straz, and start talking. “You’re the only one who can hear you, but you’ll be crystal clear,” promises English and theatre alumna Mikaley Osley.

    • Our Great Lake provides Carthage students with some amazing views. Think classes on the beach, lake views from the lab, and sunrises from your dorm room. “I love waking up in the morning with the sun shining off the lake. Nothing compares to the view in the morning,” recalls biology and neuroscience major Ann O’Leary.

    • Carthage awards up to 35 Presidential Scholarships each year, which range from $20,000 up to full tuition. Learn more.

    • For a full decade, NASA has selected Carthage students to conduct research aboard its zero-gravity aircraft. Lately, the stakes have risen. A team of underclassmen is grinding to prepare a tiny but powerful Earth-imaging satellite for launch to the International Space Station. Learn more about the space sciences at Carthage

    • Carthage is the only college or university in the Midwest where every freshman takes a full-year sequence of foundational texts of the Western intellectual tradition. Learn about the Carthage core.

    • With a student-faculty ratio of 12:1, your professors will know who you are. They will also know who you want to be — and how to get you there. Meet our faculty.

    • There are more than 130 student organizations on campus, from Amnesty International to Fencing to Frisbee, Chem Club to Stand Up Comedy. See how easy it is to get involved.

    • True story: There are more than 27 art galleries, a dozen museums, and nine theatres within 25 miles of Carthage. Some highlights: The nationally recognized Racine Art Museum, the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Learn more about our location.

    • What’s better than one professor? Two professors. What’s better than two professors? Two professors from totally different fields teaching a single class. There’s debate. Discussion. Differing perspectives. This is where the magic happens. That’s why every student takes a Carthage Symposium.

    • You can’t hide here — not with only 17 other students in the classroom with you. That’s going to be rough some mornings. But later, when you’re able to argue your point of view thoughtfully, express your opinions succinctly, and meet challenges head-on, without fear … Yep, you’ll thank us.

    • Carthage is ranked No. 3 in the country for student participation in short-term study abroad. Every J-Term, hundreds of students travel all over the world on faculty-led study tours. Imagine a month in Sweden, Rome, Cuba, Senegal, India, Japan …