Momentum Award: Mary Joe Hughes

When Mary Joe Hughes was an undergraduate student at Radcliffe College, in the years before it merged completely with Harvard University, she sat in on an MIT class about existentialism and literature. The lecturer was philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, whose courses a friend of hers had recommended, and Hughes had a habit of writing in the margins thoughts that she had while taking notes on the subject matter. “Years later I found my notebook from that class,” Hughes said. “I found that in the margins among my notes on his lectures, I had written, ‘I have to teach.'”

While Hughes had known for some time that she was interested in an educational career-she recalled tutoring students while in high school, for example-that note put in plain terms her passion for teaching. Fortunately for Hughes and for those around her, her passion and her talents lined up exceptionally well.

“What’s been great about being in her class is that she takes everything we read to heart-she sees the relevance in the material that we study for our own lives,” said Nicholas Spetko, A&S ’14, who is now finishing up his fourth semester in Hughes’ Honors seminars. “She’s very invested, she’s very engaging in class-she’ll be really animated when she talks about things that she’s passionate about, and I think that’s contagious for students in the class.”

Spetko pointed in particular to his class’ study of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov last year, saying that they spent a month and a half on the novel. “I think that that book’s played an important role in her life-she’s studied it for a long time,” he said. “To see someone’s life be influenced by a book and to want to share that is very exciting … she really seems to believe in the ultimate message of that book, which I would summarize as being that life is about renewal and forgiveness and constant rebirth. She brought in compost for class one day, which to her symbolized, I guess, how out of death comes new life.”

Christopher Constas, a professor in the Honors Program for over 20 years, was in Hughes’ sophomore seminar in 1985. “I was not, in sophomore year, a particularly motivated or high-performing student, and professor Hughes let it be known in my grades and on her comments for my essays that I was squandering my gifts and that this would not be acceptable,” Constas said. “She’s always told me-and something I’ve learned from her as a professor-is that you have to know where your students are, and you have to be able to judge which ones will be able to benefit from a kick in the pants, and which ones won’t. I clearly benefited from the kick in the pants she gave me, just very frank assessments of the low quality of my work-in a way, really motivated me, sort of woke me up and made me take a hard look at what I was doing here, and so I’ll always owe a great debt to her.”

Hughes spoke fondly of the Honors Program, in which she has taught for the past 35 years. At Radcliffe, she majored in English history and literature-“the result of changing my major five times,” Hughes said. “My problem was that I wanted to major in everything, and that’s why I’m so happy to have gotten to teach in the Honors Program, because now I can be a sort of jack of all trades, master of none.”

One of the aspects of the Honors Program she loves best, Hughes said, is the challenge of bringing different disciplines together and finding ways to emphasize how disciplines enhance each other. “I think the University is too organized according to separate disciplines that can be kind of separate silos, and the Honors Program is one area where the interaction amongst the disciplines is most clear,” she said. “That’s exciting to me, and also something that I think I was looking for in college and couldn’t find.”

David Quigley, dean of A&S and interim director of the Honors Program, noted that while he has only gotten to know Hughes within the past few years, her reputation as an excellent professor preceded her.

“I think probably more than anything, it’s the commitment, the passion, the belief in what is possible in an undergraduate classroom,” Quigley said. “She really brought texts to life, threw herself into the work of teaching … and kind of exuded this belief, a contagious belief among many faculty, that what goes on in a sophomore seminar or a junior discussion about a classic text really matters, that much is at stake in the common conversation around those texts.” He observed that the Honors Program as it stands bears Hughes’ stamp and her vision of teaching and what it means to study classic texts.

Quigley was not the only academic at Boston College to hear of Hughes’ work before meeting her in person. “Long before I met Mary Joe, I had ‘met’ Mary Joe,” said Mark O’Connor, a professor in and former director of the A&S Honors Program. His first employment at BC was as a TA in the history department, and his mentor, Thomas Perry, continually used stories about Hughes, who had been a TA for him years before O’Connor arrived, to model teaching. “I kept hearing about how she was the absolute paragon of anything that could be perfect about how you teach a course,” he said. “So you might imagine that after a while of hearing this, I was not only impatient to see her, I was also a little bit skeptical, how all this buildup had been too much. Well, in point of fact, professor Perry had been, if anything, understated. Any student who has ever had Mary Joe Hughes knows that.”

Spetko spoke to that assessment, reflecting on the manner in which Hughes conducts her classes. “What I also like about her class, and just the dynamic of the way she teaches it-she seems as interested in learning, seeing new perspectives about the material from us, as she is in showing us what she sees as the real significance,” Spetko said. “She very much encourages us, when we write papers, to be exploring or considering new topics … original ideas are most encouraged.”

Hughes stressed the importance, as she sees it, of a Great Books curriculum-classes that focus on canonical Western literature. “I think learning for its own sake is so easily crowded out by the need to be practical, to specialize, to do something that will lead to a career-and my hope for my own students, at least, is that they will have a lifelong love of learning that is for itself, and not just for its practical usefulness, but for the way it furnishes the mind,” Hughes said.

Indeed, those who know Hughes well emphasized her commitment to students’ wellbeing, echoing her own words about the importance of learning for learning’s sake.

“She really models, in some ways, and sets an example of the intrinsic value of high intellectual purpose-that education in itself is valuable, and high intellectual purpose is in itself valuable and good for you,” Constas said. “Your life will be better, you’ll flourish better, if you are intellectually serious and if you are also open-minded and fearless about the things that you’re thinking about. You have to be willing to have your most cherished beliefs questioned, but you shouldn’t be afraid of that-and I learned that from her too .” He explained that Hughes’ practice of the concept of cura personalis-care of the whole person-shaped the way she interacted with her students both as a professor and as an advisor.

“Everything about her is high integrity, as well as high intelligence,” O’Connor said. “And that’s why, for so many of us in the Honors Program, she’s been a model for so many years.” To him, O’Connor said, Hughes represents the gold standard of teaching. “Great writers, like Virginia Woolf, go up and down scales in ways that inform us,” O’Connor said. “Great professors like Mary Joe Hughes can then take that and connect you and I to it in ways that go beyond simply understanding the text. Somehow we understand ourselves better too. Only the really good professors can do that, and she can do it really, really well.”


About Eleanor Hildebrandt 92 Articles
Eleanor Hildebrandt was the 2014 Editor-in-Chief of The Heights. She liked puns then and it's a safe bet that she likes them now. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.