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english department

On November 15, English adjunct instructor Shelley Stoehr-McCarthy and her family will open up their lives to the university community when a documentary film, Little Miss Westie, is screened on campus. Stoehr-McCarthy, an MFA fiction writing student who teaches composition and won the university’s prestigious Outstanding Teacher Award last year, is the mother of two transgender teenagers, and the family’s journey over the past few years has been captured in Little Miss Westie. Stoehr-McCarthy’s husband and the teens’ father, Christian McCarthy, is a doctoral student in Southern’s Educational Leadership program. The film is named after an annual beauty pageant that takes place in West Haven, where the family lives. In the film, the McCarthys’ daughter, Ren, a trans girl, competes in the Little Miss Westie Pageant, and her older brother, Luca, a trans boy, coaches her on posing, make-up, and talent. Luca competed six years ago when he was living as a girl, so he’s an experienced adviser.

When Luca came out in 2015, Stoehr-McCarthy wrote an article about his transition, and someone who works with filmmaker Dan Hunt saw the article and connected him with Stoehr-McCarthy. Hunt, with over 25 years of filmmaking experience focusing on gender, sexuality, aging, and prison reform, teamed up with documentary filmmaker Joy E. Reed and they “just started filming” the family’s day-to-day life, Stoehr-McCarthy says. Filming began during Stoehr-McCarthy’s first year at Southern, in the fall of 2016. Hunt and Reed secured grant funding and became able to hire a crew, and the film crew “followed us around for a year,” says Stoehr-McCarthy. Eventually they began to figure out the “spine” of the story, which was the beauty pageant.

In West Haven, where the family lives, local girls are invited each spring to participate in the Little Miss Westie Pageant, held in the West Haven High School auditorium. The pageant, which usually draws about 40 participants each year, started as a fundraiser for Project Graduation, a post-graduation celebration provided for free to WHHS graduates in June.

“The 2016 presidential election changed our experience and then changed the film,” Stoehr-McCarthy says, explaining that “Trump’s election was devastating within the trans community.” A trio of groups In New Haven serves trans kids and their families, and people come from all over Connecticut to take part in these groups. Stoehr-McCarthy says that the groups’ coordinator reported that after the 2016 election, his phone line “turned into something like a suicide hotline,” as he talked to parents of trans kids to help them so that their kids weren’t terrified.

“No one knew if the federal government would suddenly turn around and say you couldn’t change your name and gender markers,” Stoehr-McCarthy says. “Everyone was trying to get documents changed as quickly as possible after the election.” The documents pertain to name-changing, Social Security, passports, and other materials related to personal identity. The family rushed to legally change the kids’ names and genders on their documents, a process that involved a court hearing. Dr. Adrian Demidont, a doctor in New Haven who specializes in the care of adolescent and adult trans- and gender-diverse individuals, ran a free document-changing clinic for trans kids in the period following the election.

Stoehr-McCarthy says that her family managed to get all their documents done by the end of 2016, “and our kids are now the same as cis children in terms of how they appear on paper.” The term “cis” refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.

Luca, a senior at Common Ground High School in New Haven, is taking two courses at Southern in the English and political science departments and wants to be an art teacher. Ren is almost 13 and started this fall at a therapeutic school in New Haven. Both Luca and Ren have suffered with anxiety and depression. They attend the Yale Gender Program, staffed by a team of doctors and mental health professionals that provides family-centered care for children, teens, and young adults who are questioning their assigned gender and/or seeking gender-affirming consultation and treatment.

Stoehr-McCarthy started teaching as a GTA with English Professor Charles Baraw as her mentor. Both won the university’s Outstanding Teacher Award in 2018. Stoehr-McCarthy has had a couple of trans students in her classes, one of whom “was really struggling. I mentioned my kids, and this student was so happy I did. He wasn’t out yet and was a freshman and kind of scared.” She says her experience of Southern has been one of “an open, tolerant, accepting community.” The English Department, she says, has been “especially encouraging of faculty and students to be their best selves.”

Shelley Stoehr-McCarthy

English Professor Tim Parrish, director of the MFA Program, says that Stoehr-McCarthy is “the ideal MFA student and teaching colleague. She’s smart, incredibly dedicated, talented, caring, a great community member and team player, and really funny and warm. She’s also a consummate pro in whatever she chooses to do, and she’s also a great mother. We’re all lucky in the English Department to know her.”

The screening of Little Miss Westie will take place at 8 p.m. on November 15 in the Adanti Student Center Theater and will be followed by a Q&A with Stoehr-McCarthy and her family, along with filmmakers Hunt and Reed. The SAGE Center and Residence Life will host a pre-screening reception from 7-8 p.m. The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of Transgender Awareness Week and Social Justice Month.

 

Photo credit of Ren McCarthy: Rob Featherstone

 

 

The J. Philip Smith Award for Outstanding Teaching is presented each year to one full-time and one part-time faculty member for exemplary teaching. The award is one of the university’s highest honors, and faculty honorees are recognized at undergraduate commencement with a plaque and an honorarium of $2500.

The awardee for 2017’s full-time award is Associate Professor of English Charles Baraw, known for his thoughtful, meticulously prepared and stimulating English classes, as well as his rare ability to switch gears if that’s what he senses students need. The awardee for the part-time award is Michelle Stoehr-McCarthy, Adjunct Professor of English, an accomplished writer, who has made a remarkable impact on students and colleagues during her short time at Southern as an adjunct professor teaching composition/academic writing.

In eight years at Southern, Baraw has designed and taught more than a dozen different courses and created two new ones again this year. He has a broad range of experience teaching 19th- and 20th-century literature, as well as the works of Shakespeare and the British poets.

One of his most popular classes, “Comics and the American Experience,” ends with a project in which students create their own comic, along with an essay about the creative process behind their productions.

“I have to listen carefully to what students say and what they do not say in their conversations with the text, with each other, and with me,” Baraw wrote of his teaching style. “And I have to be ready to act accordingly, to change, to try a different approach. What do we do, for instance, when students are reluctant to speak in class because, as some have told me, they are ‘afraid of being wrong’? Or when students do not know what to look at or what to look for in a text, or when they don’t or won’t or can’t do the assigned reading?”

One colleague, calling Baraw “respected and admired,” said that he “has made a dramatic and positive difference for our English majors and for students across the university.” The colleague added that Baraw’s instructional design is “brilliant,” and he has “deep care for the learning and development of each student.”

Baraw has said his core philosophy of teaching, is based on a “mutual imperative to trust,” explaining, “I have to trust that all students can learn . . . and they must trust that I can teach them,” he said.

Baraw has been a champion of study abroad, and in recent years has been a key figure in the university’s growing relationship with Liverpool John Moores University. He has also started, and through his family endowed, a foundation fund to help Southern students with limited financial means to travel to Liverpool, or elsewhere, for their studies.

Beyond academics, Baraw has steadfastly promoted the AAA fund, designed to help at-risk students in times of financial crisis. The fund aids Southern’s efforts to encourage student retention and persistence.

A graduate student-turned-colleague of Baraw’s describes him as an “incredible mentor,” who has guided her through tough situations. The student said Baraw modeled behavior that has changed not only “how I teach, but how I live, with a focus toward progress, not perfection.”

Colleagues also said they’ve learned a lot about the art of teaching from Baraw. “Chuck is one of a very small number of my ‘go-to’ people in the department when I want to talk teaching,” one colleague said, adding that Baraw is “a font of great ideas, sensitive self-criticism, and constructive experimentation in light of actual classroom results.”

Baraw holds a Ph.D. in English from Yale University, a master’s degree in English from Middlebury College, and a bachelor’s degree in English literature and American history from the University of Vermont.

 

Stoehr-McCarthy says that her goals in the classroom “have been not only to teach reading and writing, but to promote social and personal engagement and commitment to excellence,” adding that “one of my talents as a teacher has been to discern student strengths, and to bring those out through positive feedback with attention to student-generated goals, while minimizing student weaknesses through redirection.”

She frequently ask students to present their writing both in and out of class in order to build their confidence and to promote leadership skills “that will serve my students in future SCSU classes and in life.”

One colleague wrote that Stoehr-McCarthy “has taken a leading role in encouraging students at all levels to present their research and writing to the public.” The colleague explained that Stoehr-McCarthy instituted a partner system among the 20 students in her class so they could respond to each other’s postings and work collaboratively in class. “Since that time, I have seen more evidence of why Professor Stoehr-McCarthy’s students, colleagues, and fellow writers respect her so much. She works closely with writers of all levels and cultivates confidence among them,” the colleague wrote.

Another colleague of Professor Stoehr-McCarthy’s said that while she’s certain there are many who can attest to her highly effective, engaging, and innovative teaching model, “what makes her a truly outstanding teacher is her commitment outside of the classroom to the profession itself.”

A student who had Stoehr-McCarthy for the spring 2017 semester said that she is a fabulous teacher, but most of all a wonderful person who took great care of her emotionally when the student’s brother died.

The student wrote: “Never in my life have I known such grief and have been tormented by such pain; Shelley was the only professor that took time out of her day to sympathize with me, and made sure I was ever okay. During my leave of absence from class, she put my mental health first before my assignments that I was going to miss. When I returned to her class, she was so patient with me and would come over to my desk to encourage me when I would look or act withdrawn from what we were doing. I have never been more thankful for an educator that had such a big heart for her students.”

Another student wrote that Stoehr-McCarthy “truly made the class relatable for all the students, giving a technological twist for our millennial culture. She gave us, the students, the ability to express our thoughts and have intelligent class discussions about what our feelings were on topics and she even told us about herself and how she related to such topics.”

Professor Stoehr-McCarthy holds a bachelor of arts degree from Connecticut College with a major in dance and a minor in English. She is an author and has held many writing positions, including as a freelance editor, ghost writer, freelance reporter for Milford Patch, and guest book reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle. From 1992-1996 she served as head teacher for School for Education in Dance in New York City. She is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Southern.