Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dr. Elaine Smokewood

She was the first person in all my twenty-one years who ever told me my voice was important.  That what I thought mattered.  That my feelings meant something, and that I should think about them and explore where my thoughts about things were coming from.

She was the first person I'd ever come in contact with that lived her passion.  It literally bounced out of her on a daily basis.  She would get so worked up in class sometimes that her hands would literally shake while she was flailing them about, trying to impart to us the magnificence of whatever text we were talking about at the time.  I loved books and talking and thinking about books, but my like for books didn't hold a candle to her passion for literature.  She fascinated me.

Still today, when I come across a particularly challenging poem, I remember her words.  Let's press ourselves up against the poem.  Let's gently whisper in its ear and ask it to let us inside.  Let it feel our breath, hot on its neck.  We have to seduce the poem.  And if we massage it enough, it opens up.  It lets us in.

That's how much she loved poetry.

She had an imaginary love affair with John Keats.  We spent the better part of a class one time talking about what their relationship would have been like had Emily Dickinson and John Keats known each other and fallen in love.  She was a brilliant and beautiful poet who always underestimated herself and her work.

She was the first person who ever gave me an A on a paper.  I loved getting my papers back with little scribbles all over them-- usually they were questions or comments building on what I'd written-- a real, genuine dialogue.  I remember one particular paper I wrote on "The Tell Tale Heart".  It must have been an analysis on symbolism or something.  Somehow, I made a point about the story that she'd never though of before.  And she told me so.  It blew me away.  No way could I think of something about this story that she'd never thought of before.  That's how smart and intuitive she was.  And her confidence in me changed my life.  That's not an exaggeration.

She was a key player in my life at a time when it could have gone sharply in a very good direction or a very bad direction.  She was my academic advisor in school.  She kept me on the right track, and she took every opportunity she could to encourage me and tell me how far I'd come in school and in my personal life.

I knew her before the ALS took away her ability to move and to speak.  I know that in recent years, she pioneered the art of "teaching with silence" by facilitating student-centered distance learning with her classes.  She of course took the opportunity to learn more about herself through this horrible disease.  She said it even made her a better teacher-- even though she couldn't speak.  Her students still had brilliant discussions while she looked on through the camera and moderated.  She made the students truly responsible for their own learning.  And she won the Outstanding Faculty Award at OCU in 2010.  One of her students said it best when she said, "The disease may have taken your ability to speak, but it hasn't taken your voice."

She lived with the disease eating away at her body for four years.  And she passed away Tuesday evening in her home surrounded by her family.  When I heard the news, I was at school, testing students during our Assessment of Course Performance exams.  I couldn't help but cry.  And it's not completely because I'm sad.  I am sad, but I'm more grateful to have had her in my life.  Any success I've had, she has a major part in.  It is because of her encouragement and her passion and her confidence in me, that I've had the confidence to achieve the things I have.

I sincerely believe, had I not known Elaine Smokewood, my life would be drastically different.  And probably worse.  She was a game changer.  And I love these words she spoke about her philosophy on being a teacher, "I  have tried to open windows for my own students, as my professors opened them for me, and to be as intellectually and creatively challenging as they were, and as validating. And I have always tried to err on the side of kindness.”

And she did.  And her kindness changed lives.

Rest in infinite healing and peace, Dr. Smokewood.  Your voice lives on-- you can be sure of that.


John Beard said...


I don't know you, But I did know Dr. Smokewood. I was her student at OCU from 1996-2000. There was no finer lady in the world.

She "changed the game" for me as well. The way she spoke about literature and poetry and writing and all of it made me look at myself and the world in a whole new way.

I regret that I never told her that when I had the chance.

Stephen van Scoyoc (London) said...

Like you, Elaine was perhaps the single most important influence during my Masters at OCU. We had a tempestuous relationship during our time together, most likely because we were both passionate about literature and writing. I did get a chance to tell her how important she was to me and the emails we shared the past few months are treasured. Elaine had an impact that few of us will ever have on the lives of others. I have thought about her every day since 1997 and will continue to think about her.

Ashly said...

Thanks, guys. It's not enough to simply say she's the best. But she was.

BrieAnn said...

Hi Ashly. After I wrote the letter on my blog, I did a search and found your blog. I have also been touched by coming across things written about Dr. Smokewood by her former students. I love reading everyone's experience because it feels like reading my own. There is definitely a community of love, intellect, and sentiment with her at the heart.

llct352 said...

I was also a student of Dr. Smokewood, and also blogged about her recently. I took three classes with her, and developed an email correspondence with her over the last few months as I was making the decision to change from a masters in philosophy to a masters in English. She also got her Phd at the university I currently attend.

In her last email, she explained that she was too sick to keep up our correspondence anymore. It wasn't until then that I realized that I had never heard her voice, never even seen her in person. I was in the seminar class she taught with the camera and in two other classes she taught online. She was so empathetic and caring, and so attentive to her students. I was privileged recently to share a few words with her doctoral advisor yesterday, who is still on faculty here. He let me know that she had made a profound impact upon her professors, as well. I'm glad to have found your blog, and so many others who knew Dr. Smokewood.

Erin Conrad said...

This is beautiful. Reading about this person that had such a life changing impact on your heart gave me the chills. And it made me thoughtful towards those that have done the same for me. Thanks for sharing.

Hsiuchi said...

Hi Ashly,

We don't know each other, but I was one of Dr. Smokewood's students in 1997, and I probably was the first Asian student under her instruction in MLA.
Like Stephen van Scoyoc, I have thought about her everyday since 1997, and I e-mailed her once to invite her to come visit me in Taiwan. Later on, I read th related reports of her disease, and I prayed everyday that I may see her again. I was very shock when I learned about her death from internet...not as lucky as Stephen, I wasn't able to have some more treasure time with her after I graduated and returned to my country. I still keep the reading list she gave me in 1997 for my assertation, and I shall keep it forever and read those books again and again. I will remember the warm tone and tender voice she talked. She is the best teacher I've ever had.

Ashly said...

Thank you so much for sharing, Hsiuchi. She is still very much missed.