Sparking a passion for literature and language

Probing questions allowed her students to examine their ideas
By Diane Zazzali DeBella ('86)

Originally published in Winter 2002, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Professor emerita of English Helen Poindexter taught at JMU for 32 years.

Professor emerita of English Helen Poindexter taught at JMU for 32 years.

Her boots were the first thing a new student noticed. They were rubber rain boots that reached almost to her knees— an accessory that most students would immediately poke fun at. Yet there was something about the way this professor carried herself that made one hesitate to snicker, even after discovering that her name was Professor Poindexter.

Her flame red hair was always pulled back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, and she spoke in a slow, deliberate manner with just a trace of a Southern drawl. She learned the name of every student in her class, but unlike any professor I have ever known, she called her students by their last names only. I was "Zazzali" — not Miss Zazzali, or even Ms. Zazzali — just Zazzali.

In the spring of 1983, the second semester of my freshman year, I entered Helen Poindexter's classroom for the first time. I was taking her Survey of Prose Fiction class as an elective. My major at the time was sociology, and although I had always loved to read, I hadn't considered English as a major course of study. After all, I had no interest in teaching, and what else could one do with a major in English?

Professor Poindexter never explicitly interpreted literature for her students or even suggested that there was only one way to interpret a novel or story. Instead, she asked probing, open-ended questions that allowed her students to truly examine their own ideas — ideas that she considered as valid as her own.

It was this approach that led to many in-depth class discussions and a process of active learning that I had never before experienced in the classroom. There was true give and take between students and teacher, a refreshing change from being spoon-fed information that I was then expected to regurgitate back on exams.

Knowing that I was expected to share my own interpretations, I did not panic when it came time to take the first in-class essay exam. However, when Professor Poindexter returned my work, self-doubt overwhelmed me. At the top of my essay, she had written, "Please see me" in bold red ink. I hesitantly approached her after class, and my stomach flip-flopped as she began, "Now Zazzali — why aren't you an English major?"

It was that question that changed the course of my four years at JMU and led me to graduate school. Now, 17 years later, whenever I enter the classroom to begin teaching another semester of literature or writing, I give a silent nod of appreciation to Helen Poindexter. I can only hope that the passion I have for literature, for language, for writing and expression, comes close to hers, and that I might be able to spark that same passion in the students who enter my classroom.

Diane Zazzali            DeBella ('86)

Diane Zazzali DeBella ('86)

About the professor
Helen Poindexter earned her bachelor's degree from West Virginia University, a master's from Madison College and a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She joined the JMU faculty in 1959 and retired in 1991. She served as a visiting scholar at the University of the Philippines from 1968 to 1970. She is a member of the James Madison University Emeriti Association, formed this year to reconnect former faculty members with the university and each other.

About the author
Diane Zazzali DeBella ('86) earned her master's from San Diego State University. She has taught writing and literature at colleges in California, Colorado and Vermont; and her poetry and nonfiction has been published in
Vermont Literary Review, Offerings, California Quarterly, Valley Voices, Passages and Paint Me Alive. She is a project director at Parent to Parent of Vermont, where she directs the Family Faculty Program in conjunction with the University of Vermont College of Medicine. DeBella and her husband have five-year-old twins.