In the Classroom with Kelly Comfort
Associate Professor of Spanish Kelly Comfort went to college with plans to become a broadcast journalist. But like many students, she found that the reality didn’t meet her expectations, and she just didn’t like what she was studying. Taking her first class in comparative literature changed her life.
“The professor was incredible,” she said. “I was rather shy in the classroom, and he had a way of getting me to talk. He would play devil’s advocate and really draw the students in.”
In some ways, it was that professor — Eric Downing at UNC-Chapel Hill — who inspired Comfort and made her interested in the field of literature.
“I realized that being a literature professor allowed me to do the same things that had drawn me to journalism — public speaking, writing, and having knowledge of the world and applying it in certain ways,” she said.
Comfort’s mother, a high school math teacher who retired this year, was her other inspiration for becoming a teacher. She was Comfort’s teacher for six classes in high school.
“Luckily, math is not an ambiguous subject; the answer is right or wrong,” Comfort said. “So, I think it prevented any accusations of favoritism,” she joked.
Comfort said her mother was a very compassionate teacher, and her friends and classmates would talk to her mother about their problems.
“She had a very humane approach to teaching, and she also could make math make sense to everyone,” Comfort said. “Some of the things about how I teach are similar to her. She was always over-prepared but could improvise well if something didn’t work. That was important. She was not rigid and could adapt to how we reacted to her teaching.”
As an associate professor of Spanish in the School of Modern Languages, she teaches Spanish as a foreign language, and literature and culture as a subject matter. She teaches in Spanish. With the exception of occasionally teaching Spanish 2001, an intermediate course, all of her teaching is at the upper-division level.
“By the time students get to that level, they are conversant in Spanish,” Comfort said. “I’m certainly correcting grammar, building vocabulary, and improving sentence structure, but it’s not the student who’s coming to me without any basis in the language.”
She also teaches Latin American literature in Spanish. She said the students may struggle with some of the vocabulary, so part of her job is to help facilitate the discussion and analysis of the text they are reading.
“When I’m teaching language, what excites me most is watching students grow in their confidence as well as their proficiency,” Comfort said. “When I can see students lose some of their nervousness and anxiety, take risks, and be proud of those risks, it’s really exciting.”
In her classes, she emphasizes the importance of gaining fluidity in the language so that the students are not stopping themselves about word choice and grammar.
When teaching literature and culture — especially literature — she enjoys seeing students debate and discuss different interpretations of a literary text.
“I pit different readings against each other, and problematize the reading so there are multiple ways to interpret a story,” she said. “There isn’t necessarily a right answer, but every answer has to be backed up and supported.”
Comfort also gets excited about teaching literature at a technology-focused school.
“I think it provides a philosophical and creative outlet for what are typically engineering students,” she said. “Many of them excelled at language and literature in high school, but they made the choice to go into a STEM field. But, it’s something they still want to incorporate into their academic careers here, and my classes allow them to do that.”
She teaches four classes that involve a service learning or community engagement component: Spanish Service Learning, Hispanic Community Internship, Intercultural Seminar (senior capstone course in Spanish), and a Modern Language introductory seminar.
In her service learning and internship classes, students have to complete three or six hours, respectively, of community engagement with the local Latino community at one of 25 businesses or not-for-profit organizations. They use their Spanish in concrete ways such as working at hospitals, schools, and after school programs in areas of health care, education, immigration, translation, domestic violence prevention, drug prevention and others.
Advice for New Faculty
Comfort wants her students to know how to be successful in her class. So, she feels it is important for her to be very clear about expectations and how assignments will be graded. She says new faculty should place their focus on that, as well.
“It’s up to the students to perform based on those standards,” she said. “But they are always aware of what the sub-categories of a graded assignment are, and that allows them to be comfortable in the class and not overly concerned about the unknowns. I don’t want students to be surprised, and I don’t like to tack on things they weren’t planning on. I definitely take into account what I see as the desire of Tech students to know what is expected [of them] and where we are going.”
Another piece of advice for new faculty is that they don’t need to know all of the answers.
“You have to know how to ask the right questions and give students the opportunity to explore and engage with the material and come up with their own interpretation,” she said.