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Barreca fosters learning with
high expectations for students, self
October 13, 1998

On a Wednesday morning four weeks into the autumn semester, 30 undergraduates fill a room in Arjona Building for a class in modern British literature. On the cusp of October, the air is humid and Indian Summer warm.

It is the kind of morning that could tempt one to oversleep. But in this classroom no one is sleeping - or even yawning - as Regina Barreca arrives. By the time she has walked the eight steps from the door to her desk at the front of the room, she has said, "Good morning," and is already informing the students that they have no assignment to pass in - a departure from most classes.

Even when students are not required to turn in an assignment, they know that Regina Barreca's questions - like everything else in her classes - are never frivolous. She knows the name of every student in the class and they know she will call on them. If she does, they had better have an opinion and they had better be able to cite evidence from the book. And they won't be able to do that if they haven't read the four chapters that were assigned for today. Since required reading for the three-month class includes seven novels, the savvy student does not fall behind.

"I was very intimidated at first," says Heather Messina, a senior from Windsor. "She has an attendance policy. There's a lot of writing, and quizzes in most classes. She's very demanding, but she's also helpful. She creates a great learning environment."

Creating a great learning environment, Barreca will tell you, is something she learned to do nearly 20 years ago when, as a graduate assistant at Queens College, she was "thrown into the deep end."

"I taught night classes," she recalls. "Many of my students were people twice my age who came to the class directly from their day jobs. A lot of them were new immigrants. They wanted to know what I had to give them and it forced me to figure out what I could do best for the people in front of me." It is a question she still asks herself every time she enters a classroom.

"I don't think today's students are much different from the students who were here when I began teaching at UConn 11 years ago," she says. "What students look for from their professors is enthusiasm and energy about the subject. In a good class you learn. A great astronomy class teaches you a lot about the world and a great English class can do it. Teachers have the power to make someone love a subject or hate it. It's an awesome power."

It's a power she began to discover only when she attended college herself. Barreca grew up in New York. Her father and his brothers had a business making bed spreads and curtains. She was the first person in her family to attend college.

"Everyone in my family worked hard," she says. "I always expected to work hard. I was just not certain what sort of work I would do."

At Dartmouth, she discovered both teaching and writing, and she invested in them the work ethic that had made her family successful. Dartmouth was followed by a scholarship to Cambridge University, where she earned her master's degree, and then the City University of New York where, in 1987, she earned her Ph.D.

Her dissertation topic - Hate and Humor in Women's Literature: Twentieth-Century British Writers - set the tone for a writing career that has paralleled her teaching career. Since 1988, she has authored or edited 12 books, seven of which deal with various aspects of women's humor. She is also the author of numerous articles and papers and holds a number of editorial positions.

In Barreca's classes writing, humor and teaching are inextricably entwined. "She has a wide-ranging intellect and an incredible energy that is really contagious," says Margaret Mitchell, a UConn Ph.D. candidate who has been Barreca's graduate assistant for the past year. "She gives that enthusiasm to her students and she demands a lot in return."

It is, Barreca says, a teaching strategy she always employs. "I learned early that most people will rise to the level of expectations," she says. "I have very high expectations for my students and they all know that."

What do the students get in return.

"As a paradoxical response to my time at Dartmouth, I really became committed to the idea of public education," she says. "I like people who are carving out some sort of destiny for themselves, rather than simply fitting into a slot that has already been prepared for them. Our students are hungry. I treat students as people who are making their own independent decisions about life.

"I ask them to work hard and they do," Barreca adds. "They deserve the best I can give them and that's what they get."

Jim Smith