Engaging students in civic issues has always been the goal of Ann Collins, an associate professor of political science at McKendree University. However, this year’s political process has created more lively classroom discussions than other semesters.
“We have students on all sides of the political landscape,” she said. “They articulate their viewpoints in class. Thankfully, it’s civil. They do listen to each other. They’re gradually tuning in more and more.”
Before the start of each class, a student must share a political news story, and that opens up a discussion, she said.
Collins said the news alerts are happening at such a faster pace that they will have one discussion in class, then during a break, she’ll find out something else has happened to add to another class’ topics.
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Collins was hired at McKendree in 2007, soon after she completed her Ph.D. at Washington University, which is how she came to St. Louis. She teaches courses in American politics, state and local government and public policy.
“I was very fortunate. McKendree is a wonderful place. The minute I stepped on campus, I felt at home. I describe it as a family,” she said.
Collins, 49, lives in O’Fallon with her two children, Carter, 15, and Elizabeth, 13. They sometimes accompany mom on extracurricular excursions.
“I like to interact with students in and outside the classroom. A lot of learning can take place in those situations,” she said.
Last week, she took a busload of students to lobby lawmakers about funding for higher education. It was Student Lobby Day. They also expressed concern about the MAP (Monetary Award Program) grant funding, which is awarded through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission to undergraduate students. It covers tuition and mandatory fees.
She takes getting the students involved seriously. She creates an open dialogue and encourages students to be responsible citizens. Voting is a high priority, and as a deputy registrar with St. Clair County, she can register students. She has organized several voting drives.
“I am so impressed about how engaged they are. Some are becoming activists. It’s a win-win, getting passionate about what’s important,” she said.
Students tell her that they are more informed now, reading the news and educating themselves on issues.
“I hope they continue lifelong learning, and tap into that,” she said. “I hope they continue to be engaged and have a voice in it, because government affects them.”
With a diverse student body, from all over the U.S. and international, different outlooks become part of the lesson.
“It’s fun to see their perspective,” she said.
Collins is also involved in student groups. She is an adviser to the freshman honor sorority, Phi Eta Sigma.
Others have taken notice of her involvement and popularity with students.
At McKendree, she won the recent 2017 Humanitarian Award, presented at the annual MLK celebration service in January.
She has received numerous faculty awards, including the William Norman Grandy Faculty Award in 2015.
Among her accomplishments, she developed the Virtual Center for Teaching Excellence, initiated the Teaching Circles faculty feedback program, and leads a faculty book study group about teaching strategies.
She has moderated local election year political debates and Constitution Day activities.
Her research interests are political history, collective violence and race riots, in addition to American politics.
In addition to her teaching duties, she is working on her second book, which will be published later this year. “The Dawn Broke Hot and Somber: U.S. Race Riots in 1964,” is an analysis of eight major race riots that took place in northern cities in 1964.
She worked on it during a sabbatical last spring.
“It was difficult to be out of the classroom, especially during the presidential primaries,” she said.
But sharpening her research and writing skills was important.
The latest work explains the factors and conditions that led up to the violence, and their impact economically, socially and politically. The Civil Rights Act, War on Poverty and the 1964 presidential election are also examined.
Her research focuses on the causes and effects of racially motivated uprisings. With similar tensions in the U.S., she addresses Ferguson and Baltimore eruptions in 2014 and 2015.
After violence broke out in Ferguson, McKendree President Jim Dennis created the Social Justice and Equity Committee, which focuses on issues of race. She is a part of the committee, and urges fostering communication. In small group discussions, finding commonality and having hard conversations is a necessary component, she said.
Her first book, “All Hell Broke Loose: American Race Riots from the Progressive Era Through World War II” was published in 2012. It included information about the East St. Louis race riots in 1917.
Growing up in San Marcos, Texas, which is between Austin and San Antonio, her parents were college professors — dad was a historian, mom taught English. She thought she wanted to go into chemistry, but that lasted two weeks.
“What in the world was I thinking?” I said.
She was interested in foreign service, and even interned at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., but a passion for education took over.
“I went into the family business,” she said. “Teaching was in my blood. My parents were teachers, and my sister teaches at a Montessori School in August. Growing up, it always looked like my parents had pretty neat jobs.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies at Texas State University (then Southwest Texas State University), and a master’s degree in American and Latin American history from Louisiana State University.
Studying abroad in Spain opened a new world to her.
“I was shy, but I had to get over things pretty quickly in a foreign country and break out of my shell,” she said. “It teaches you about yourself and others, and I encourage everyone to do it.”
She eventually earned two degrees at Washington University in politics.
“After I went through all the educational hoops I needed to, I thought, ‘This is a great gig,’” she said. “Teaching American politics is the best fun I can have.”
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: Be kind to others. You never know what they might be going through.
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: My parents — the late Bill Brunson, and Luan and Kent Haynes. They have demonstrated through their actions and words how to live a life of spirituality and intellectual curiosity. I also learned from a very young age the significance of social justice and caring for others.
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: Having grown up Texas, I’d love to hear what Ann Richards and Molly Ivins would have to say about what’s going on in American politics today.
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: “In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime,” by Michael W. Flamm. Right now I’m reading “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning,” by James M. Lang for McKendree’s faculty book study this spring. As soon as I get a chance, I want to read “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: Hang out with my children, Carter and Elizabeth; travel.
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: My desk is clean, but the rest of my office is in disarray.
Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: At first, I wanted to teach elementary school. As I got older, I wanted to either be a foreign service officer or a university professor.
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: Empathy or optimism.
Q: What irritates you most?
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: I usually listen to National Public Radio, but sometimes I can be persuaded to change the radio to whatever my children currently listen to.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: My colleagues, our students, and the subject I teach — everything related to American politics.
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: I’d probably still be teaching. But I’d also travel a lot more!
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: A student once told me that I reminded her of Sandra Bullock. I can live with that. I also love Carol Burnett. She would do just fine, too.
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: My children and extended family — and all of our pets.