To John Riofrio, the day a student walked out of his class in frustration represents as large a teaching victory as the day a quiet conversation led another one to remain in William & Mary and later choose teaching as a career.
That might seem a strange posture for an instructor who during Charter Day will be bestowed the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. But it’s a perfectly consistent attitude for the Hispanic studies professor who goes by “Rio” and who daily tries to prod students into challenging intellectual territory.
His efforts will be rewarded on Charter Day, Feb. 6. The award is given annually to a younger faculty member who has demonstrated – through concern as a teacher, character and influence – the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society.
“I'm not a highly awarded anything,” Riofrio said. “This is the first big award I've won, and it's an amazing feeling.”
Hispanic Studies Professor Ann Marie Stock said in a letter of support from the Modern Languages and Literatures Awards Committee that in 2009 the department envisioned hiring a Latino cultural studies specialist mainly to create and offer courses in the emerging field.
“But we gained so much more: a brilliant scholar whose work is shifting paradigms in ethnic and area studies across the hemisphere; a highly effective teacher consistently lauded by his students for ‘life-changing’ experiences and sought out by his colleagues for pedagogical advice and curricular enhancement; and a generous citizen devoted to the greater good. Professor Riofrio inspires us all, and his leadership and collaborative spirit have left us changed,” she said.
Riofrio emphasizes a hemispheric approach to identity politics by examining Latino cultural production, border studies, globalization, immigration and migration, Stock said. Classes such as Border Theory, Constructing the Barrio and Critiquing the American Dream expose students to new perspectives, and they respond enthusiastically in evaluations that rank Riofrio and his classes “well above” the departmental mean.
“It was one of the first classes I had that really required me to think,” wrote Chenoa Moten ’12 in a letter of recommendation. “There was no ‘remember, recite, repeat’ going on in Rio’s classes. He would constantly challenge us to have an opinion and to share it.”
Another student, Jin Hyuk Ho ’16, said the class lit up when Riofrio walked in. “He was genuinely interested in what everyone had to say and, for the first time in my life, I got to experience a classroom in which no student held back his or her thoughts for fear of sounding stupid.”
For his part, Riofrio dodges credit, pointing to the nature of teaching and the students themselves for his success.
“Good teachers are constantly critiquing themselves. One of my advisers once said that good teachers were inherently like thieves: They would see a good idea and steal it, take it for their own classrooms and their own pedagogy. He's absolutely right about that.
“William & Mary is absolutely sincere about its dedication to teaching. I never felt like if I had published two brilliant books in my field and had been a terrible teacher, I would have been able to stay.”
In the classroom Riofrio sparks discussion and sniffs out dissent. If students feel like it’s the first time they are being asked to think deeply about a subject, Riofrio said it’s more a commentary on K-12 education emphasizing standardization than it is on him.
“William & Mary students are often the students who have best been able to negotiate that context. The problem is I don't know that that necessarily qualifies you to be a critical thinker. But what does it mean to actually spend time teaching critical thinking? It's time consuming, and it’s often really frustrating for students.”
Enter the student who exited. Riofrio recalls the class was discussing consumerism, and what it means to live in a country whose economy is dependent on citizens buying all the time. One student argued that “sometimes shopping just feels good,” but balked when asked what generated that good feeling.
“I remember she was upfront that this was so frustrating, that she just felt like, ‘Where's the right answer? Should we buy stuff or not?’
“And that frustration is actually what my classes are about. I don't pretend I have any answers to these things. And our efforts to work through them, to just wrestle with them, was precisely what they hadn't been asked to do in high school. What I love about teaching here is that when they do come to my classroom, almost across the board they are ready to think about these things.”
Students say Riofrio is just as inspiring outside the classroom. Daniel Vivas ’11 had already met with a recruiter, having decided to drop out of school to join his brother in the military, when he went to see Riofrio.
“What was said in that office will stay between him and me,” but the conversation changed his mind, Vivas told the awards committee. Today he’s himself teaching while pursuing a doctorate. “Every day I’ve spent as an educator, I’ve spent it trying to be as good a teacher as [Riofrio], and to be as impactful with my students as he was with me,” he said.
Riofrio denies he has a particularly nurturing demeanor and actually gave up freshman advising because he felt he wasn’t good enough at it.
“Mine is not the kind of office where a steady stream of students comes in to sort of pour their hearts out,” he said. “I don't have a box of Kleenex ready to go. But I care about them, and I respect them.”
On campus, Riofrio is one of the inaugural group of Center for the Liberal Arts Fellows implementing the new COLL curriculum. He sits on the W&M Diversity Advisory Committee and has also served with the Ad Hoc Admissions Committee for Latino Recruitment. In 2011, he organized a national colloquium on minority studies on campus.
His forthcoming book, Continental Shifts: Migration, Representation and the Search for Justice in Latin(o) America, will be released by University of Texas Press this year. He has also published a series of opinion pieces in The Huffington Post.
Off campus, he serves on the board of directors of All Together Williamsburg, a group promoting diversity in the Historic Triangle. He participated in a Virginia Department of Health workshop on Latinos and has co-facilitated public workshops in Williamsburg on Latino immigration.“I’ve really wanted whatever I do to be relevant, particularly trying to bridge the disconnect between the public perception of Latinos in the United States and the reality,” he said. “There's still an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I feel like my academic work shouldn't be entirely distinct from my role in the community.”