magazine-category: Faculty

Embracing the Community of the Unexpected

Teaching Excellence Winner, Dr. Elizabeth Amato, Centers Learning Around Relationships

Dr. Elizabeth Amato has been named the director of Undergraduate Research. As an associate professor in political science, Amato has served the Gardner-Webb community since 2014. She also received the Excellence in Teaching Award for 2021-22. The award recognizes academic rigor, effective course design and dedication to students. Amato’s approach to teaching centers on fostering a strong relationship between students and the text they are reading.

“My goal is to help students carefully read some of the best thinkers on the persistent questions of how we live as individuals and in political communities,” Amato said. “I want them to encounter the written words of a person from the past. These people are some of the best teachers available.”

Amato also believes that humility and a spirit of discovery are important in the process of education. In addition, she feels humor and a coaching mentality are essential when teaching young minds. “Comedy helps hold people’s interests and makes them wonder what is next,” Amato stated.

She credits her parents for inspiring her love of teaching. She grew up in Baldwin, Ga., in a family of teachers, with her father being a math teacher and her mother, a piano teacher. While she never took after her parents’ skills of mathematics and music, she learned a lot from her professor, Peter Augustine Lawler, at Berry College in Rome, Ga., where she earned her bachelor’s degree.

“He introduced me to a very different way of thinking about political science and literature,” remarked Amato. “He took ideas seriously and did things in an unexpected way. He taught me to look for the unexpected within the text.”

Through Lawler, Amato saw the value of political science and started to think through the question, “How do I want to live?” For Amato, political science is the “art of the possible” and a great way to bring ideas into the world using the materials available to humanity. “Politics are an important aspect in the struggle to live as free beings,” she observed. “It is vital in understanding how to live with others.”

Thinking back to her time as a first-year college student, Amato said if she could go back and give herself advice, it would be to value friendship and community. This desire to build community and foster relationships can be seen in her style of teaching, such as her popular coffee and tea tasting class, in which students drink coffee and tea from all over the world. “The class brings back the wonder and excitement of learning,” she described.

The tasting class further promotes community and offers important aspects for professional development, where the student is enabled to navigate social situations and understand networking. Another purpose for the activity is to introduce the students to a wide number of coffees and teas to help them seem more cultured in social situations. They also learn about the economics and politics behind these drinks.

Amato recalls the first time she toured Gardner-Webb and seeing herself belonging on the campus.

I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college,” she shared. “That was my ambition and dream—to know the name of my students and be able to mentor them.

Dr. Elizabeth Amato

She appreciates the faculty mentors who helped her get accustomed to Gardner-Webb. She specifically cites Professor of History Dr. Timothy Vanderburg, former GWU professor Dr. Joseph Moore, and Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Dianne Sykes, who have each helped her in different ways.

Before coming to Gardner-Webb, she taught at James Madison College at Michigan State University in East Lansing. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in political science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Amato wrote her dissertation on the role politics and literature play in understanding the pursuit of happiness. In 2018 she published this research into a book titled, “The Pursuit of Happiness and the American Regime: Political Theory in Literature.” In addition, Amato has authored multiple articles and chapters and served as a resource on elections for regional media and public events.

She is working on her next project, writing a book about moral education presented within the television series, “Cobra Kai.” Amato noted, “My hope with the book is to show how the ‘Cobra Kai’ navigates the thorny questions and trials of young adults who both want to be good and to do good. I love looking at how writers, novelists, and directors depict the world. What are they trying to show and teach us?”

She is positive about her new position as director of Undergraduate Research. “I am excited for the opportunity
to guide students towards high-impact and high-quality projects and undertakings,” she affirmed. “I believe it is through something like undergraduate research where students transition from students in the proper sense to experts.”

Brandon Richmond graduates in May 2024 with degrees in English and philosophy and theology.

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