Get to Know a Teacher – English's Mary Elizabeth Leighton


Associate Professor Mary Elizabeth Leighton has taught English at UVic for 18 years. In September, she was awarded the faculty's award for Excellence in Teaching. Here, Leighton talks about ethical teaching, her guiding principle for all writing instruction, and how she helps her students find professional success. 

When accepting your award, you said that teaching is an ethical practice. Can you talk a little more about what you mean by that, and how your approach to teaching has evolved over your career?

Our profession as teachers obliges us to help students expand their knowledge, improve their analytical and communication skills, and make connections among their studies, their lives, and the wider world; it also obliges us to create structures (such as syllabi and classroom activities) and assessment tools (such as formative and summative assignments) that enable students to achieve these goals.

It can be challenging to imagine and implement course structures and tools that serve every student’s learning needs! Over the years, I think I’ve accrued a wider roster of teaching tools than I had when I started out—and I hope I’ve honed my listening skills to become better at discerning what each student needs to thrive in my classroom.    

You are known for your ability to improve students’ analytical thinking and the quality of their prose, especially in the honours seminar you teach. Why do you believe in teaching writing at a high level? And how do you teach critical analysis?

Writing well is pleasurable—and powerful: communicating your ideas clearly has the potential not only to gratify you personally but also to help others deepen their knowledge and understand complex issues from a different perspective. Strong writing communicates effectively, saves time (both yours and that of your readers), and persuades people. Clear writing reflects clear thinking, whether you’re figuring out how a sonnet works, how to pitch a story or an advertising campaign, or how to frame a legal judgment. And clear writing is portable beyond an English degree: a strong command of grammar, voice, and tone will serve you in any profession. 

Teaching clear professional writing beyond the UVic classroom (mainly to judges and lawyers) has really transformed how I teach writing in my UVic courses. It has given me a vocabulary for talking about how good writing works, from structure and organization to sentences and punctuation. It has also given me a model for toggling between big-picture writing lectures and hands-on writing workshops. You become a better writer through reading and writing a lot, so a writing-feedback loop is crucial; in my classes, sometimes feedback is from me, and sometimes from the rest of the class in writing workshops, where we respond to anonymized samples from students’ essays and learn how to hone our own prose by admiring and critiquing other people’s writing.     

Your research focuses on Victorian literature. Students have noted your expertise in the subject, as well as your enthusiasm for teaching it. How do you involve students in your research, and why?

I get such a hit of pleasure from digging around in Victorian archives, whether it’s in our wonderful UVic Special Collections or in online nineteenth-century databases or in libraries and museums beyond Victoria. I never cease to be excited and surprised by how Victorian writers grappled with questions of representation, identity, justice, faith, and labour. In my teaching and research, I want to extend that experience to students, offering them opportunities to get similarly excited and surprised by what they find in Victorian texts and archives. For that reason, my Victorian literature courses always involve visits to Special Collections. Beyond the classroom, students have worked with me as editorial interns, research and conference assistants, and copy editors. They bring fresh eyes to research questions I’m trying to answer, and they get some excellent professional experience beyond the classroom. We each benefit from their participation in my research projects.      

Your commitment to teaching writing extends beyond the classroom to facilitating workshops on writing essays, conference proposals, and theses, as well as seminars on judgement and legal writing. What are some common tips you give people to write well?

My guiding principle for all writing instruction is Be kind to your reader. Whatever you are writing, whether it’s an essay or a conference proposal or a cover letter, you always need to consider the reader’s needs ahead of your own. Imagine your reader as intelligent and interested but a little distant from your topic. Maybe even imagine your reader as a specific friend who isn’t in your scholarly discipline or professional field. What context do they need in order to make sense of what follows? What specialist terms do they need defined? What is your main point? (Do you have one?) Front that point up at the beginning of your document and refine that point as you transition through various sections or paragraphs. Revise ruthlessly to ensure that there is a critical spine that runs through the first sentences of all your paragraphs. Cut everything that doesn’t relate to your point(s). Writing for your imagined reader is challenging but gratifying work that increases clarity and efficiency.

Finally, I hear you are quite the networker. How do you help students find fulfilling work?

During my stint as Undergraduate Literature Adviser in English, I helped organize a series of career panels that featured successful alumni talking about their career paths. I was always fascinated by the professional advice they offered, from volunteering for local organizations as a way to gain relevant work experience to writing thank-you cards to the person who interviewed them. From those panelists, I learned about “informational interviews” (for which you contact someone working in a job that interests you, take them out for coffee, and “interview” them about what they do professionally and how they got there). Since then, I have gleefully set current students up on “informational interviews” with former students who are working in the field they hope to enter. You want to be an archivist? Here are three alumni now working as archivists! Ask them what steps they took to get there and how to hone your resumé for Library School applications. You want to freelance write? You want to be an occupational therapist? You want to go to med school? You want to teach abroad? You want to work in communications? You want to start your own web design company? Ask these English alumni how they got there! I love helping students brainstorm how to shape their resumés for future professional success and connecting them with successful alumni who can help them think through the next steps on their career path.