My memories of freshmen orientation at Georgetown are a strange jumble of fragmented moments, most likely due to the blistering heat and withering mix of excitement, dread, and budding homesickness. One memory from the jumble is of a breakfast pow-wow with fellow freshmen and our upperclassmen mentors. We worked our way through the usual topics (Where are you from? Where do you live? Isn’t it hot in Knight Hall?) until we got to our fall schedules. When I shared that I had Dr. Mary Brady for English 112, I got worried looks from the seasoned college veterans at the table. Over our scrambled eggs, they told me in no uncertain terms that no one gets an A from Dr. Brady and that she was unreasonably difficult. I was duly warned.
I don’t remember if Dr. Brady abruptly seated herself at the empty desk next to mine and asked, inches from my face, “Well, what do you think?” on our first day of class, but that scenario played out enough times over the semester that some students began recruiting classmates to sit next to them as a Brady Buffer; because when she sat down next to you and asked a question, you had better have an answer – and quickly. While this was undoubtedly nerve-wracking for a college freshman, it was also an exhilarating shock to the system. Here was a professor who expected something from us – and not something mediocre. And here was a professor who actually listened to what we said; those purposefully vague or pat answers would not fly in Dr. Brady’s class. Further, despite our fear of being called on, I don’t recall that many people ever skipped class. Perhaps this was out of an even greater fear of the consequences of such an absence; but I tend to believe it was because Dr. Brady was a magnetic force in the classroom. She waved her arms, she raised her voice, she threw papers, she threw chalk, she smacked the blackboard, she cackled. She put on a show. But in the midst of that show, she taught.
I would, after English 112, go on to take several more classes with Dr. Brady. As an English major, it was common for me to come out of a class with page after page of copious notes; but not with Dr. Brady’s classes. I always marveled that, more often than not, I would leave her class with a blank sheet of paper. On the surface, one might think I hadn’t learned anything, that she hadn’t passed on any of those kernels of wisdom that I so diligently scribbled down from other professors. The truth, however, was just the opposite. I took few notes in Dr. Brady’s classes, but I took away more insight and knowledge from her classes than probably any others. I took so few notes because I was so engaged, even if I were simply silently listening. I was so caught up in our discussions that I essentially did not wish to break that spell by interrupting it with note- taking.
At the time, I didn’t really understand what it was that Dr. Brady was able to do in the classroom. I didn’t really understand what it was about her and about her classes that made her the person I knew I could go to with any question, no matter how small or even stupid it might seem. When I was preparing for my oral exams my senior year, it was to Dr. Brady’s office I went when I was stressed to the point of breaking, convinced that I would fail and fail miserably. I don’t really remember what we talked about in those office visits, but I know I walked away feeling more confident and assured. Now that I am an instructor myself, I have a little more insight into what Dr. Brady was doing, both inside and outside the classroom. Dr. Brady made us think. That’s a simple sentence but a profound action. Really thinking – thinking critically, thinking complexly, thinking thoroughly – is an inordinately difficult task. It’s relatively easy to get students to regurgitate information you have spoon-fed them. It’s much, much more difficult to get students to take those discussions you’ve had in the classroom and apply that same level of thinking and analysis to their own work. Dr. Brady did that. I confess I still don’t understand exactly how she did it, but I do see now that that’s what she gave us during her classes. She showed us how to think, she demanded that we think, she empowered us to think. That’s why I left her office so self-assured; she had reminded me of what I was capable of doing. Without telling me, without giving me the answers, without a clichéd “you can do it” speech, she simply helped me to see what I already knew – that I had, to quote from another Dr., this one Seussian, “brains in my head.”
Even putting it into words now, what she did seems too simple, too obvious. But in the context of my life, it was profound. There are many professors I remember fondly. There are many professors I can credit for opening my eyes and mind to ideas I had never considered. There are many professors who were dynamos in the classroom, truly fantastic instructors who made my college experience one I cherish and who inspired me to go into college teaching myself. And this is not to say that no other professor did what Dr. Brady did, but none, I would argue, did it in such style, did it on the same scale. Dr. Brady taught me a lot about English literature. She taught me a lot, frankly, about college. But she taught me even more about life and about being human, about how we move through the world as citizens, as scholars, as thinkers, as beings. And for those lessons, even more than those about Beowulf or Sir Gawain, or Henry IV, I am forever thankful.
by Amanda Morris