November 19, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson
The worst part, says Albion College English professor Ian MacInnes, is that he'll have to talk.
To politicians, no less. And in public.
"I'm nervous about talking to congressmen," he said in anticipation of tonight's reception at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in which he is one of the guests of honor. "I may not have even voted for some of them."
But, as has so often been the case in his 21 years teaching everything from Homer to Shakespeare to making John Milton's Paradise Lost into a class celebration, MacInnes will find a way and it will be a success.
MacInnes was named the 2015 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Michigan Professor of the Year. He was honored at an awards luncheon at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center and then with the evening reception at the Folger.
It's all a bit much for the Philadelphia native, who insists he hasn't done anything more than any other professor at Albion would do.
"It's an honor," he said. "It's pretty special. And I think Albion should be nominating people more regularly for this award. We have great teachers and we should be more actively putting people out there."
MacInnes was nominated by Albion chemistry professor Lisa Lewis, who said in her nomination letter that students consider him one of the best professors on campus.
"He challenges his students to think creatively and to analyze and synthesize what they are learning," she wrote. "He stretches them beyond what they think they are capable of and he is there to provide support."
The yearlong nomination process also included glowing letters of reference from President Mauri Ditzler, other faculty members and students, including Rebecca Little, '00, who wrote, "But really great teachers—the ones you always remember—are rare. Prof. MacInnes is one of those teachers. His students are lucky to learn from him, and Albion alumni are lucky to benefit from his advice long after we graduate."
MacInnes knows of the letters of recommendation but he admits he hasn't read them all.
"I feel slightly embarrassed," he said. "Everybody has friends and colleagues that can say that about them, I hope. But I know how much work the process is and I'm grateful to Lisa for nominating me."
MacInnes, the chair of the English Department who over the years has also been advisor to The Pleaid and director of the Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (among other activities), has always tried to teach in ways that engage as well as educate.
"It's certainly a principle I've had for teaching," he said.
For example, in a course he taught in 2012, a first-year seminar about the importance of the horse in Western culture, he had his students build from scratch an ancient Greek chariot.
"Very little is known about those," he said. "You can't Google it. They had to research it and work on different systems of it. They all had individual parts they worked on and they had to collaborate. The goal is to introduce students to liberal arts and to build study and writing skills. It's a good way to get students motivated, and if you can get them excited, it's hard to stop them from learning."
He also teaches Elizabethan literature which includes the iconic Milton poem Paradise Lost, a work viewed by generations of students as sometimes impenetrable.
But MacInnes has never seen it that way and therefore has never taught it that way
"It's such a compelling story," he said.
To that end, he often has his class perform the poem out loud, with students taking turns reading passages.
"It takes about eight hours," he said. "Every student has a part and they can invite friends over and order pizza."
This semester MacInnes is teaching at Chicago's Newberry Library, along with Albion history professor Marcy Sacks, as part of the Newberry Seminar titled, "Knowing Your Place: Human and Social Geography."
After this semester, he will take a sabbatical in the spring before returning to campus next fall to do what he does best and loves most.
"I don't think I taught well for a very long time and I think I'm still learning to teach," he said. "And every year I think, 'Maybe I finally got it,' but then I know I can be better. That's why teaching is the best profession in the world."