Donald Johns

2003 Award for Excellence in Teaching

Donald Johns says he is “happiest when my teaching style goes unnoticed, much as the style of effective writers rarely calls attention to itself.” But the torrent of letters from students, alumni, graduate students and colleagues consistently describes a challenging, caring, and inspiring teacher and a wise and thoughtful mentor. As a future teacher observed, Johns embodied the best teaching practices that they read about: he “turned ideas and methodologies into tactile things we could grasp onto and use.”

After earning his B.A. and M.A. from San Francisco State College, Dr. Johns received his Ph.D. in literature from UC San Diego in 1982. A lecturer at UCD since 1983, he has taught a wide range of courses, from first-year expository writing through advanced composition, writing in the disciplines (physiology to philosophy), writing in the professions: law, journalism, and education, American literature, Scottish literature and culture, Elvis Presley, and graduate courses in composition theory and pedagogy. He also mentors instructors by observing their teaching, conferring about classroom problems, and organizing workshops on effective teaching techniques.

Across diverse situations, Johns earns consistently high student evaluations and ardent praise. Having studied critical and higher order thinking, Johns actively engages students in learning. While teaching close and critical reading, decoding of sophisticated discourse, rhetorical and stylistic strategies, he models a metacognitive approach that fosters independent, expansive thinkers. He builds confidence by getting to know his students as individuals, challenging, encouraging, and offering detailed constructive suggestions.

“First and foremost,” Johns says, “I ask myself what, with the opportunity I have here, can I do to help this student before me now.” With an apparently “laid back” style, “down to earth” perspective, and a good sense of humor, he creates a comfortable learning environment and facilitates provocative discussions. As one student says, he combines “strong and unwavering command of the classroom” with an “open and unthreatening demeanor.” Graduate students similarly report that “he is never overbearing or proscriptive in his suggestions for teaching strategies.” They admire “his ability to look at all sides of an issue, weighing the pros and cons.” Even equally experienced colleagues perplexed by pedagogical concerns count on his “wise counsel.”

While teaching civic literacy and engaging students in pondering social and ethical problems, Johns publishes literary articles, reviews, opinion editorials, and essays on topics ranging from golf and family camping to literacy, bi-lingual education, and confronting stereotypes. He also participates in civic life by serving on many campus committees and on the Marin Literacy Council and by mentoring student tutors. “He viewed us as the future,” a former student recalled, “and encouraged us to always be mindful of the bigger picture.”