Take a peek inside Prof. Polley’s office on Instagram!
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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