Whether it is medieval romance or monsters, Professor of English Debra Best has an uncanny ability to find just the right stories and plays to successfully integrate students intellectually and artistically into the study of challenging literature.
Best specializes in medieval literature and Shakespeare, and creatively incorporates high-impact teaching into her literature and composition courses, including student research, group and performance projects, and imaginative assignments.
Her teaching style has turned her students into fixtures at conferences, in the pages of academic journals, and at CSUDH’s Student Research Day awards ceremonies. This ability to bring student learning to life and her many contributions to the English Department have garnered Best the 2020 Presidential Outstanding Professor Award.
“I was truly honored to be nominated for this award by my colleagues and former students. When I found out I won, I was left truly speechless and must have reread the email five times before it sank in,” shared Best, who arrived at CSUDH in 2005 and has since won three Outstanding Advisor Awards in the English Department. “I always try to focus on the students, so it is quite gratifying to have this recognized.”
Intuitively, Dr. Best understood that though I did not participate in class that I was still a hardworking, yet shy student. As a result, she motivated me to take her graduate level seminars as an undergraduate and to participate in Student Research Day. Though she intimidated me at first, I think Dr. Best is one of the most caring and supportive professors in the department. – Jennifer Henriquez
The Presidential Outstanding Professor Award recognizes excellence in teaching, and is presented to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding achievements in all areas of faculty performance, who is a respected educator and expert his or her field, and is an outstanding member of the Toro community.
When she was a college student, Best experienced a dramatic academic shift. As a freshman who had planned to study physics at Pomona College of Claremont, she enrolled in a general education course on early British literature taught by Martha Andresen. Her class studied Beowulf, an Old English epic poem consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines, and the medieval text turned Best into an English major.
“Martha was an exceptional teacher. She had won multiple teaching awards at the college and at the state level. She also taught Shakespeare, so I took that class and fell in love with it,” Best said. “She was one of those people in whom you could just feel the love of the literature when she walked into a classroom. I try to be like her when I teach and communicate my enthusiasm for the texts to my students.”
Best’s study of Beowulf years ago sparked her interest in a Ph.D. dissertation on monsters in Middle English romances that developed into a graduate seminar at CSUDH that examines medieval monsters. “There are some wonderful medieval dragon stories that my students just gravitate to, such as the story of St. Margaret, and the story of an adulterous woman being transformed into a dragon in Handlyng Synne. It is disturbing in that the latter is based on how women were regarded during the 14th century, yet important and interesting at the same time.”
To really engage students in courses such as Shakespeare, Best breaks them into groups to develop and rehearse scenes that they perform for the class.
“Shakespeare is meant to be performed much more than read, and I like to give my students that experience. I want them to be able to understand his work in all the various ways – reading it, watching it, and performing it,” said Best, who also uses the work of the 15th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer to create storytelling competitions for her students.
Outside the classroom, Best has been an active faculty member of the English Department since she arrived at CSUDH in 2004. She was an essential contributor to the development of the university’s Faculty Advising Fellow Program and has served in various capacities in student advisement and scholarship.
Academic advisement at CSUDH had previously been run by non-faculty staff. “Advising is near and dear to my heart. When we brought faculty back into the Advisement Center I was one of the first ones in there,” said Best, who has been the coordinator of the English Graduate Program since 2008. “When it comes to curriculum, there are very nuanced things that only faculty know.”
Last fall, Best began leading her department’s curriculum committee and has since initiated nearly 20 program updates that address such issues as student graduation rates and new general education courses.
Best has published eight articles and chapters, including the regularly cited “The monster in the family: a reconsideration of Frankenstein’s domestic relationships” (Journal of Women’s Writing, 1999), and she has two books under development. To keep current in her field, she attends the California Rare Book School, contributes annually to the Chaucer Bibliography, and regularly presents on monsters and medieval romance at national conferences.
As an educator, Best is energized by her students, and her respect for them is derived from the hard work that they put into their studies. “They appreciate everything that they get. They work so hard in college, many of them after working at jobs all day long,” she says. “They sacrifice so much for a good education and a better life.”