Professor inspiring students to love learning wins Davids-Dunham Award

Rachel Levitt, professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, is receiving an award from the College of Arts and Science Diversity Committee, Sept. 29, 2021. (Deborah Adeniji l Collegian Media Group)

The College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Committee named Rachel Levitt, teaching assistant professor in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department, the winner of the 2021 Davids-Dunham Award.

According to an August KSUnite announcement, the college gave Levitt the award to recognize their excellence as a teacher and scholar. The award also recognizes their support of both Kansas State and the college’s mission to promote diversity through teaching and scholarship.

Susan Rensing, a teaching associate professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, said Levitt is an empathetic and inclusive teacher who encourages students to share and participate.

“They are really good at getting people wanting to talk,” Rensing said. “That is especially admirable because Dr. Levitt often teaches about very difficult topics such as sexual violence, trauma and transphobia. Those are topics that are hard to feel good while discussing, but they have a way of getting students to feel affirmed and engaged in the conversation.”

Levitt said they developed this empathetic and inclusive teaching style through their journey as a student, which led them to change their major seven times before deciding on communications.

“I was someone who took a while to figure out what I wanted to do, and when I landed on communications, I realized relatively quickly that I did not do well with guys yelling at me, saying I was wrong,” Levitt said. “This led me to get very involved in activism and feminism.”

Levitt said their parents were ready for them to settle and graduate after changing their major seven times, so instead of switching again, they added gender studies to their communications major.

“While I switched through so many majors in undergrad, I really frolicked through different ideas and got really excited every time I met a professor who loved what they did,” Levitt said. “My love of learning was so thorough that I wanted to do that for students. I wanted to be the person who sparked their love of learning and confidence.”

In their schooling, Levitt said they saw a lot of ways in which people who are supposed to be in charge can either help or hurt power dynamics when there are problems.

“I had multiple friends experience sexual assaults, experience deportation and have a lot of experience with the kind of structural violence that I did not have the language to understand at the time,” Levitt said. “But I had the emotional experience to see that it was a remarkable violation, and the institutions made the trauma even worse because of how they dealt with it.”

So, to receive more training in racism and social justice issues, Levitt said they got their Ph.D. in American Studies and two graduate certificates at the University of New Mexico — one in women studies and the other in racial and social justice. They also became involved in Native Liberation organizing.

“While I was in New Mexico, as a state, New Mexico was the police-murdering-of-civilians capital of the U.S.,” Levitt said. “We did a lot of organizing to try and get the local police force to stop killing people.”

Levitt said police targeted Indigenous peoples who were natives of the land, a group with the highest rate of death by police in terms of representation compared to the general population.

“We would be at protests, protesting the most recent person murdered by police, and they would be murdering someone else at the same time,” Levitt said.

These experiences contributed to Levitt’s inclusive and hands-on teaching style.

“A lot of my politics were shaped by being in the classroom with the people whose lives were affected by the very things I was teaching,” Levitt said. “That was when I started the mindset while teaching, to always assume that the things I am teaching about affect the people in my classroom.”

Adam Carr, project administrator for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Student Affairs, said Levitt brings that level of inclusiveness to K-State.

“In the education that Dr. Levitt provides, especially when you are speaking about identity in which you do not hold, it can be very difficult to experience authentically when it is not your own,” Carr said. “I think Dr. Levitt does the best possible in trying to incorporate the voices of those identities.”

Levitt uses stories, videos, music and all media that comes from the identity they are teaching about, Carr said.

“This is how Dr. Levitt brings that identity to the classroom, it is not seen as reading a book written by someone who isn’t in that culture talking about them, but instead students will listen and read the words from the people they are learning about,” Carr said.

To help other teachers become more inclusive and more trauma-informed in the classroom, Levitt spearheaded a feminist pedagogy theory workshop series, Rensing said.

They have distinguished themselves over the past couple of years as somebody who is an expert on inclusive pedagogy, Rensing said.The feminist pedagogy series is something the Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies Department has launched as kind of a monthly workshop for any instructor to attend to learn how to be an effective teacher.”

According to Rensing’s workshop description, Levitt focuses on helping teachers understand how to teach students material that falls outside the usual boundaries of classroom content.

“When you talk about sexual violence in the classroom, you are going to have students in the classroom who have experienced sexual violence, which can be traumatic,” Rensing said. “So, Dr. Levitt has offered workshops on these topics for teachers to learn how to talk about these important issues in a way that does not cause harm.”

Besides their work with other teachers, Rensing said Levitt goes above and beyond when helping their students in and out of the classroom.

“I have seen Dr. Levitt spend so much time talking with students, writing letters of recommendations or helping with undergraduate projects. Sometimes these are not even students who have been in class with them,” Rensing said. “These are just students who gravitate to them and are helped by them, which I feel is really special.”

Evan Ricker, doctoral student and graduate assistant conductor for the K-State Orchestra, said he maintains contact with Levitt after taking their course. Ricker said Levitt is both supportive and encouraging.

“I went into Dr. Levitt’s class as a grad student with no knowledge of queer studies, and they were extremely welcoming and helpful,” Ricker said. “I now have them on my dissertation committee, and they have been instrumental in helping me find my footing.”