Associate Professor Rachel Fleming-May was a public and academic librarian before she earned her doctorate degree and began teaching, and one of her very first teaching experiences was creating a user instruction class.
“How I designed that class was by using all the things I wish I had known as an academic librarian who was thrust into teaching with no real preparation,” she said.
This practical approach to teaching, combined with a conscious effort to be responsive to student needs and to highlight diverse perspectives, has molded Fleming-May’s teaching style for the 11 years she’s been at the School of Information Sciences. Her work in the classroom earned her the 2020 Teacher of the Year Award from the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), which she received this fall at the ALISE Conference.
She said she was honored to be nominated and selected as the recipient of this award, and was especially thankful to her past students, SIS alumni, who wrote letters of support as part of her nomination. Watching students grasp concepts and take them out into the real world is a particularly gratifying part of teaching, she said.
“My students are always surprising me; I have expectations and they always manage to exceed my expectations and help me look at things in a fresh way,” she said.
Fleming-May’s role as a faculty member has been especially student-centric ever since she became director of graduate studies for SIS three years ago. She pointed out that SIS has one of the largest graduate programs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with its more than 300 masters students comprising about eight percent of the university’s graduate population. This program has also continued to grow over the last few years, making the role of DGS even more crucial. It’s been a lot of work, and Fleming-May said she could not have done it without Tanya Arnold, SIS Coordinator of Student Services.
“One of the best things about this position is getting to work closely with Tanya, who I always knew did a ton of work, but I have a different and even greater appreciation for everything she does,” she said. “I’ve also really enjoyed working with the staff at the Graduate School, and getting a broader perspective on the University.”
The director of graduate studies undertakes plenty of administrative duties, but one of the most important and visible duties is speaking with potential students—when people filled out forms expressing interest in the program, the next step was a phone call with Fleming-May.
“Rachel is dedicated to supporting the success of our students. This tireless dedication is apparent in her teaching of many important and popular MSIS courses, her advising, and in her service as director of graduate studies. She is often the first personal touchpoint potential students have with our program and, for many students, a conversation with her was the reason why they choose SIS,” said SIS Interim Director Carol Tenopir.
Fleming-May said that reviewing applications and speaking to potential and newly accepted students has given her a unique and fun opportunity to get to know the incoming SIS students better than she ever had the chance to in the past. But her time as director of graduate studies for SIS is coming to a close and she’s working with SIS Clinical Assistant Professor Ericka Patillo, who will fully take over the role in fall 2021.
“Ericka will do a great job—she brings a wealth of experience and academic knowledge with her. She already has a lot of really creative ideas and I’m excited to see what she does as DGS,” Fleming-May said.
While she has enjoyed this unique time in her career, Fleming-May is looking forward to taking a deep dive back into her research.
“Research is something I put on the backburner over the past few years, so I have a number of projects that I’m excited to get back to. A lot of my past research is with assessment, and I’ll be doing more with that,” she said.