"I sought every means possible to engage both their hearts and their minds," Donna Reed has observed about her teaching. In her twenty-two years at UC Davis, she has succeeded splendidly in this enterprise. As her grateful students and TAs attest, she "brings literature to life, in the most vivid sense, engaging the imagination and nurturing that part of a student's mind that loves learning simply for its own sake."
While a graduate student at Harvard, Dr. Reed began her teaching career instructing elementary German. Even such basic language classes she tried at first to center around the students’ interests, resisting — sometimes quixotically, she readily admits — the more common role of drill sergeant. As an assistant and associate professor of German at the University of the Pacific, her broad intellectual interests spurred her to develop courses in Comparative Literature and Women's Studies. Her scholarly book The Novel and the Nazi Past was published in 1985; her more recent publications have appeared in Comparative Literature, the leading journal in her field.
Since 1981, when she began teaching in the Comparative Literature Program at Davis, Reed has been the "backbone" of the lower-division program, says Professor Brenda Schildgen. "It is hard to imagine how the undergraduate program could have thrived as it has without her committed and constant work." In a wide range of courses —the literature and composition Great Books series, the large enrollment lower-division courses in Fairy Tales and Fables and in the Literature of Fantasy, upper-division courses in women's literature and the novel, and graduate courses in pedagogy — Reed's intense conversations with her students have inspired them to become active participants in their own learning.
Even in her courses of 150 students, she strives to "convert the large lecture hall into a small classroom community.” Her TAs, whose thoughtful descriptions reveal their deep respect for her methods, admire her sensitive attention to her students' needs in the course of her intellectually demanding lectures: "She patiently challenges students to make increasingly critical arguments and draw ever more sophisticated connections among the materials. She is able to quickly gauge student comprehension and adjust the pitch of her arguments as each class unfolds, tailoring the information to the level of student understanding." And at the end of every class, students surround her to ask questions and to continue the conversation.
The independent thinking nurtured by Reed's deep commitment to classroom dialogue carries over to her students' writing. Her genuine interest in their ideas makes them want to convey their thoughts precisely, and her meticulous responses to their essays — another form of conversation— help them to improve the focus and clarity of their work. As one of the many TAs deeply influenced by her example wrote, "Donna's approaches to teaching exemplify the principle that the student who is taken seriously will take learning seriously."