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Pointing the way to discovery


Grace Burton loves to hear a student complain that he’s “frustrated.” To that she replies, ”Congratulations!” This year’s Ciancio Prize winner for excel- lence in teaching, Burton says the frus- tration means “he’s right on the edge of understanding something. It’s not over his head and it’s not irrelevant—it’s within grasp.”


A Spanish professor at Skidmore since 1987, she asserts, “Students need tools to solve problems productively, not simply correct an error. This is not about Span- ish. It’s about empowering a student to use his mistakes to move forward. I am teaching for the long term.” Lindsey Fyfe ’05 remembers the day she went to Burton’s office “when I was hovering in the low B range, and she told me, ‘Your mistakes are getting smarter.’ I had never felt so good about messing up and mak- ing progress.” Burton’s approach was inspired by her parents. “My father used to say that every child adds up to 100 percent, with talents in different categories, and it’s your job as a parent to help each child balance those categories.” She continues, “My parents were my best teachers and my best students—geniuses. They looked at me and asked, ‘Who’s this one?’ and learned how to help me achieve my goals.” She tries to do the same for her students. “It’s an act of faith,” she says, because “I don’t have to be


there when they ‘get’ what I’ve been teaching; I just have to help them arrive there.”


In Burton’s survey of Spanish litera- ture, Danika Robison ’11 sometimes felt “like Alice in Wonderland, falling slowly down the rabbit hole. Then she would discuss the passages that had eluded me, and a powerful light turned on.” Camila


Lértora Nardozzi ’04, daughter of Skid- more Spanish professors Paty Rubio and the late Juan Carlos Lértora, says she was “a total Burton addict. I made my sched- ule around her classes, even if they were on Friday.” Nardozzi always did the read- ings, she says, but then in class “I real- ized there was so much more packed into the pages. Language and literature come to life through Grace.” Burton


teaches intro- ductory Span- ish, intermedi- ate language and lit, and ad- vanced inde- pendent stud- ies. She says, “I went to a Catholic school


which comports with the “European Christian idea that things couldn’t be less than whole. Arabic numbers begin with zero, which was anathema to West- ern medieval thought. But now the hall- mark of modern thought is relational thinking.”


BETWEEN HELPING HER STUDENTS ONE BY ONE, PROF. GRACE BURTON GETS A WIDER OVERVIEW.


“THIS IS NOT ABOUT SPANISH. IT’S ABOUT EMPOWERING A STUDENT TO USE HIS MISTAKES


TO MOVE FORWARD. I AM TEACH- ING FOR THE LONG TERM.”


where we learned about language struc- ture, and I want my students to appreci- ate that. Today kids learn to speak from YouTube, which helps with dialogue, but they also need to recognize language as a symbol system, to learn its grammar.” She adds, “I don’t want my students to feel they have to be perfect. ‘Perfect’ means ideal, fin- ished, complete, full, no room for improvement, no


space in which to accelerate. Perfect would leave no room for original thought.” In fact, the notion of absolute- ness captivates Burton, who is writing about the “concept of zero” and its role in Western thought. “The idea of zero changed philosophy, literature, and sci- ence,” she says, noting that Roman numbers begin with the numeral one,


Cindy Evans, who directs the Foreign Languages Resource Center, calls Burton “phenomenal” as a teacher and “exem- plary” as a peer: “clear-minded, rational, analytical ... and with a sense of humor.” She’s also “gifted at putting things into context, whether it’s a 17th-century novel or a student-advising matter.” Outside Skidmore, Burton refuels through reading, golf, piano, crossword puzzles, and time with her cherished husband, government professor Ron Seyb. Academic accomplishments not - withstanding, she considers her most important achievement the research that helped to diagnose a dangerous long- term illness that Seyb is now on top of. From husbands to students, “everyone has a story,” she concludes. “I ask to hear it. I can help organize the infor - mation, but discoveries are personal.” —Helen S. Edelman ’74


WINTER 2012 SCOPE 7


GARY GOLD


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