Howard Community College is holding its commencement today. Leading the faculty procession will be Rick Leith, an assistant professor of English and the college's "Outstanding Faculty Member" for 2010-11.
Leith, 57, is an Elkridge resident who has taught at HCC for 21 years—18 years as an adjunct instructor, and the past three years as a full-time teacher. He spoke with Patch about the award, his approach to his job and what advice he has for students graduating from HCC.
What does this recognition mean to you?
"To be recognized by my peers as outstanding faculty within my division alone is very, very humbling. It’s quite an honor in that I work with a group of extremely talented and dedicated people. To take that further and be the outstanding faculty member of the entire college is really almost beyond my comprehension.
"It’s such an honor because this is a stellar group of people who work here. To be singled out among them is amazing and probably the highlight of my professional career."
Why do you think you’re being recognized?
"Since being here full time and being able to dedicate the time to it, I’ve tried to incorporate as many innovative assignments as possible. A lot of that involves service learning, involving the students somehow in the community.
"Much of it involves humanizing myself with the students, because in teaching writing and literature and first-year-college-success-type courses, it’s vitally important that, if I expect the students to give me something from their brain and also from their heart, then they see me do the same.
"I want them to see me as human and I want to instill in every student that they have something valuable to contribute at the classroom level, the college level, the community level, nationally and globally. They all have something to contribute, and it’s my function to help facilitate them in finding that.
"It’s not often an easy thing to do. It took me a lot of years to find the way I can best contribute. I know it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. I can help facilitate some of them to realize that they’re valuable, that they have something valuable to say."
What are examples of some of the things you do in the classroom?
"We did a project a couple years back in a writing class, a freshman composition class, that focused on homelessness and hunger, and we had students in a variety of situations working with the Howard County Food Bank, working in Baltimore at Our Daily Bread, working at various homeless shelters, trying to get a hands-on experience and an understanding of the idea that, but for the grace of God, this could be them.
"One of the basic tenets of service learning is reflection on the experience. They wrote about the experience and what that meant to them. We ended up that semester doing a food drive on campus, a tough thing to do in April—most people want to give at Thanksgiving and Christmas—but we pulled it off and were successful.
"In my first-year learning classes we did a project this past fall. The students made a reusable bag to carry groceries, books, whatever, and then the idea was an emphasis on sustainability. We had bags printed with the college logo and the Howard County Go Green logo and we distributed those at the public library with messages tagged onto the bags about sustainability.
"Most recently, in my college composition classes, we’ve been doing a project that asks the students to learn about the history of Columbia and contribute to it. Their focus for the last two semesters has been on Merriweather Post Pavilion.
"They’ve researched artists who’ve played there, made playlists and talked about their significance, interviewed people who were attendees, critics, local historians, people who worked there. They turned those into films, brochures, etc., and all of the projects from that class go to the Columbia Archives.
"They’re contributing to the collection of local history by doing that. They’re not only learning academic writing, but learning real world writing and skills."
What message do you have for students who are now headed off from Howard Community College in various directions?
"I think that probably the most important thing is to realize that wherever they’re going, it may be a circuitous route, it may not be terribly easy to get there, but they can get there. It may take time, and there’ll be plenty of lessons learned along the way, whether at the college or elsewhere in the lives.
"Every situation is potentially a learning opportunity, and if they use it as such and follow their passions in doing so, they will become lovers of learning and lifelong learners. I think that if you become a lifelong learner and you're passionate about what you do, you will lead a valuable and productive life.
"It’s not all rainbows and lollipops out there, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play to win, try hard and do the absolute best you can do."
Editor's Note: David Greisman took English 101 with Rick Leith just about eight years ago. There were no promises at the time that if Leith gave David an "A," then he'd get an interview eight years later for being "Outstanding Faculty Member" of the year.