Instructor Spotlight: Dixon Discusses Learning Links, Helping Students Find their Confidence, and Working through Challenges 

CATEGORIES: Foundation Courses

Brenna Dixon, Associate Teaching Professor and Learning Community English Links Coordinator, came to ISU in 2009 as a graduate student in the MFA program and has been teaching Foundations courses ever since (along with Advance Communication courses, fiction workshops, teaching methodologies and independent studies)! She is responsible for coordinating and supporting the Learning Community English Links as part of ISU’s broader Learning Community (LC) Program. Learning communities are small groups of students who generally take one to three courses together and may live in the same residence hall and participate in study groups, peer and faculty mentoring, social activities, community service projects and career exploration. ISU offers a wide variety of learning communities. In her role with LCs, Brenna contributes to the strategic planning and implementation of ISU’s LC program plans and goals, coordinates daily operations of LC English links, and assists in the evaluation and professional development of LC English link faculty. She gathers requests for English Links sections each semester and works with the English Department’s office to staff those sections; and collaborates with learning community coordinators across campus, and instructors in our department, to develop and maintain adapted curricula for students in a variety of learning communities. This work is ongoing, she explains, “I am continually fine-tuning the adapted curriculum for the LC sections that I teach to make it more relevant to my students and their future careers.” Brenna also sits on ISU’s LC Advisory Committee, co-chairs the LC Curriculum Committee, and regularly presents at college-wide meetings. This past semester, she presented at the National Learning Communities Conference. 

Her background is in Creative Writing and the Environment, specifically fiction. She also shares, “I have a deep interest in interdisciplinary teaching, as well as mindfulness as a tool for student learning,” and she incorporates those interests in her courses. She hopes that her students understand that she cares about them as whole individuals with lives and other classes and other interests. “They are humans, not robots, and I know that. I don’t expect them to be perfect. I genuinely want to help them thrive in my class and outside of it,” she says. She also prioritizes building her student’s confidence. “If my students end the semester feeling even a little bit more confident in expressing themselves and navigating the many pools of information we have available to us, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

“When it comes to Foundations courses, I especially enjoy showing students that they are, in fact, capable writers (sometimes despite what previous teachers have told them). It means a great deal to me to be able to support them in unwriting the ‘you are a terrible writer’ narrative that someone else once convinced them was true.”

Brenna says that she has been “surrounded by amazing teachers [her] whole life—history teachers, band directors, writing instructors.” One of those special teachers is her own mother, an elementary school teacher who is currently the Assistant Media Specialist at the Ahfachkee School, a tribal K-12 school on the Big Cypress Reservation in Florida. She also shares that her 4th-grade teacher was one of those who left a lasting impression, “Mrs. Horrell always encouraged a love of learning in me and inspired me to pass that along to others.” 

Her advice to new teachers is, “It’s ok if things don’t go as planned. That does not make you a bad teacher. Sometimes the same lesson will go really well—better than you could have possibly hoped—in one class, and then on the same day, it will completely flop in a different class.” Brenna sees each day as an opportunity for creativity and to be challenged; no day is ever the same, which is part of what she enjoys about teaching.  

Her most challenging teaching experience was teaching during the pandemic. “I, like most people, worked a lot of very long hours during the height of the pandemic. During that time, working with learning communities was especially meaningful. Acting as part of an interdisciplinary support network for students, alongside many wonderful colleagues from our department and across campus, kept me connected to others and immediately impacted students’ well-being and academic success. Having my dog, Sheriff, as a constant co-worker also helped. I tend to overwork, so having a reason to walk outside two-three times a day helped me step away periodically (and still does!) when everything felt very immediate.”

While writing is her number one hobby, Brenna also loves to paint, play music, hike, bake, and read “monster-y” novels. She especially loves animals and has worked in a veterinary clinic, trained therapy animals, and volunteered at wildlife rehabilitation centers. If she weren’t an English professor at ISU, she says she would love to be a novelist, and she and her partner, Aaron, and Sheriff would “live in a cabin in the woods on a lake somewhere with no internet and a phone signal you have to hike to get to.”