Sheboygan Campus educator, Prof. Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier receives Underkofler Award for Teaching

SheboyganAwardA little more than 10 years ago, Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier stood in front of her first class of college students scared that she might not make it through her first year of teaching.

She’s come a long way since those first days. Now a tenured assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus, Pilmaier is stretching the boundaries of her pedagogy, her profession and her abilities as she urges her students to dig deeper and into more meaningful discussion as a way to teach rhetoric and teaching.

And others are taking notice.

On Friday, October 26, 2018, Pilmaier accepted the Alliant Energy Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award. The award is even more special to her because it is vetted by colleagues from across the state — all of whom are also exceptional teachers.

“I cried when I got the email that I was one of the three chosen,” she said. “The Underkofler is an extremely prestigious teaching award and requires that your application materials are vetted by colleagues from all over the state who are exceptional teachers. The competition is stiff, and it is an incredible honor to even be in the running for the award, much less win it.”

Alliant Energy Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award is an endowed award from Alliant Energy given each year to three teachers within the University of Wisconsin System from the Madison, Platteville, Baraboo, Fond du Lac, Richland, Rock or Sheboygan campuses who personify the dedication of faculty and staff as teachers and who communicate their subject matter effectively, inspiring their students with an enthusiasm for learning.

Pilmaier said teaching is what she’s always wanted to do.

“I always felt like I was supposed to be a teacher,” she said. As a child, she would line her dolls up and lead classes, she said.

But getting from the school yards of Menomonee Falls, to the halls of higher education wasn’t a path she expected to take. The child of manufacturing employees for Master Lock, Pilmaier is a first-generation college student. She did her undergraduate work at UW-Oshkosh with a double-major in English and International Studies and a minor in German. It was there that she realized she didn’t want to teach in either the elementary or high school setting.

“I had multiple teachers through high school and college who encouraged me to go into teaching, but I freaked when I heard stories from friends at Oshkosh who had to spend semesters taking classes where you had to design bulletin boards,” she said. “I knew that was not for me. I didn’t even consider college teaching until one of my professors suggested that I take the GRE and apply to grad school. It blew my mind that I, the daughter of factory workers, could possibly do that.”

Pilmaier went on to get her master’s degree and her Ph. D. in literature from Marquette. It was there, as a teaching assistant, that she got her first real taste of teaching at a college level. After getting her Ph.D. in 2007, she began teaching as an adjunct professor at UW-Waukesha, before becoming part of the tenure tract at the former UW-Sheboygan in 2009. In 2015-2016, she received tenure and remains on the UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus faculty.

It’s because of her roots, she said, that helps her to connect with her students on a different level. The UW System’s mission for the two-year campuses is to ready students to not only get their associates degrees, but to also finish a bachelor’s degree.

“As an institution of access, we have a high percentage of first-generation students, non-traditional students, English Language Learners and developmental students,” she said. “I absolutely love this group of students because a majority come in wondering if they are college material, and we have the ability to help them understand that they are exactly where they need to be. We can mentor them and help them on their path, but ultimately we help them to see that they are the force behind their own success.

And that success, she said, comes about from making students active participants in their own education.

“Student success… is determined by preparedness, confidence, trust and determination to succeed. Of course, interesting and clear materials are a plus, too, but I learned that in order for students to thrive, you have to engage the individual and not the general. They need to see that they have a voice that is important and deserves to be heard. There is no better avenue for this to be realized than through writing,” Pilmaier wrote in her Underkofler application. “Translating my sense of engagement to my students is one of the most important elements in my teaching because it requires my students to see outside of themselves, to realize that they have thoughts that others want to/need to hear, and I feel it is it is my job to help them gain the skill-set they need in order to propel that message forward.”

Pilmaier said that in order to make her rhetoric and composition classes more meaningful to her students, she decided to use the rape culture as an avenue to teach rhetorical analysis.

The decision wasn’t an easy one.

“A colleague of mine and I noticed that one of the challenges of teaching rhetorical analysis is getting students invested in the subject matter,” she said. “We felt that using the rape culture would help get them looking at how an author is trying to get a message across to a specific audience.”

The subject matter was initially an uncomfortable conversation to approach.

“I had students threaten me. We had people making confessions in class. It was a nightmare scenario at first,” she said. “But after that first semester, we let our students know that we were mandatory reporters. And we told them we are all adults and you are all a part of this conversation and we all have to talk about this.

In the era of #MeToo, the subject matter wasn’t just in the classroom, but all around them.

“By striving to create an environment that respects differing opinions and challenges students to travel beyond their usual comfort zones, I endeavor to provide students with the atmosphere of trust that they need in order to risk refining and revising their ideas in concert with others,” she wrote in her application. “It is this type of trust that enables me to use the topic of rape culture as a conduit to teach rhetorical analysis to my English 101 students. We talk about these issues openly and respectfully, and after class, one of my quietest and most brilliant students came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for … enabling us to have this discussion… It has changed the way that I now see the world. I even had the courage to tell my dad to stop using derogatory words and had the evidence to explain why it isn’t just me being sensitive. Words have meaning that cut deep.”

Her students agreed. T. J. Schmidt, one of her students, said Pilmaier is a gifted educator. Working with her, he said, has helped him improve not only in his collegiate writing, but his professional presentation skills, as well.

“She quickly develops rapport with her students, establishes a free learning environment, and employs consistent and fair practices in her classroom,” he said. “Her methods of class engagement are thorough and meaningful. Her other students respond well with her approach to education and take a genuine interest in them. Under Dr. Pilmaier’s guidance and encouragement, I have consistently realized my measurable gains with in the management world.”

For Pilmaier, the Underkofler Award is an affirmation of not only her childhood dreams, but of the idea of being able to reach new heights, regardless of where you come from.

“It’s a really important part of my career for my children and for some of my family,” she said. “When you decide you’re going into higher education and some of those around you don’t understand or appreciate what you do can be hard. But being able to be in the classroom and see the sea change in students that is happening right before you…. I am incredibly blessed to be able to do this every day. I must have done something incredible in a past life to deserve this life.”

Pilmaier has received numerous awards since joining the Sheboygan Campus faculty in 2009, including teacher of the year and a distinguished service award. She has twice been named a Wisconsin Teaching Fellows and Scholars participant (2012-13 and 2017-18).

By freelance writer Liz Carey for UW-Green Bay

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