In the Classroom with Kelly Comfort

In the Classroom with Kelly Comfort

In the Classroom with Kelly Comfort

Associate Professor of Spanish Kelly Comfort went to college with plans to become a broadcast journalist. But like many students, she found that the reality didn’t meet her expectations, and she just didn’t like what she was studying. Taking her first class in comparative literature changed her life.

“The professor was incredible,” she said. “I was rather shy in the classroom, and he had a way of getting me to talk. He would play devil’s advocate and really draw the students in.”

In some ways, it was that professor — Eric Downing at UNC-Chapel Hill — who inspired Comfort and made her interested in the field of literature.

animated icon - book pages flipping

“I realized that being a literature professor allowed me to do the same things that had drawn me to journalism — public speaking, writing, and having knowledge of the world and applying it in certain ways,” she said.

Comfort’s mother, a high school math teacher who retired this year, was her other inspiration for becoming a teacher. She was Comfort’s teacher for six classes in high school.

“Luckily, math is not an ambiguous subject; the answer is right or wrong,” Comfort said. “So, I think it prevented any accusations of favoritism,” she joked.

Comfort said her mother was a very compassionate teacher, and her friends and classmates would talk to her mother about their problems.

“She had a very humane approach to teaching, and she also could make math make sense to everyone,” Comfort said. “Some of the things about how I teach are similar to her. She was always over-prepared but could improvise well if something didn’t work. That was important. She was not rigid and could adapt to how we reacted to her teaching.”

photos - Kelly Comfort - three photos, each with different expressions

CLASSROOM STRATEGIES

As an associate professor of Spanish in the School of Modern Languages, she teaches Spanish as a foreign language, and literature and culture as a subject matter. She teaches in Spanish. With the exception of occasionally teaching Spanish 2001, an intermediate course, all of her teaching is at the upper-division level.

“By the time students get to that level, they are conversant in Spanish,” Comfort said. “I’m certainly correcting grammar, building vocabulary, and improving sentence structure, but it’s not the student who’s coming to me without any basis in the language.”  

She also teaches Latin American literature in Spanish. She said the students may struggle with some of the vocabulary, so part of her job is to help facilitate the discussion and analysis of the text they are reading.

photo - pages of book flipping

“When I’m teaching language, what excites me most is watching students grow in their confidence as well as their proficiency,” Comfort said. “When I can see students lose some of their nervousness and anxiety, take risks, and be proud of those risks, it’s really exciting.”

In her classes, she emphasizes the importance of gaining fluidity in the language so that the students are not stopping themselves about word choice and grammar.

When teaching literature and culture — especially literature — she enjoys seeing students debate and discuss different interpretations of a literary text.

“I pit different readings against each other, and problematize the reading so there are multiple ways to interpret a story,” she said. “There isn’t necessarily a right answer, but every answer has to be backed up and supported.”

Comfort also gets excited about teaching literature at a technology-focused school.

“I think it provides a philosophical and creative outlet for what are typically engineering students,” she said. “Many of them excelled at language and literature in high school, but they made the choice to go into a STEM field. But, it’s something they still want to incorporate into their academic careers here, and my classes allow them to do that.”

She teaches four classes that involve a service learning or community engagement component: Spanish Service Learning, Hispanic Community Internship, Intercultural Seminar (senior capstone course in Spanish), and a Modern Language introductory seminar.

In her service learning and internship classes, students have to complete three or six hours, respectively, of community engagement with the local Latino community at one of 25 businesses or not-for-profit organizations. They use their Spanish in concrete ways such as working at hospitals, schools, and after school programs in areas of health care, education, immigration, translation, domestic violence prevention, drug prevention and others.


ADVICE FOR NEW FACULTY

Comfort wants her students to know how to be successful in her class. So, she feels it is important for her to be very clear about expectations and how assignments will be graded. She says new faculty should place their focus on that, as well.

“It’s up to the students to perform based on those standards,” she said. “But they are always aware of what the sub-categories of a graded assignment are, and that allows them to be comfortable in the class and not overly concerned about the unknowns. I don’t want students to be surprised, and I don’t like to tack on things they weren’t planning on. I definitely take into account what I see as the desire of Tech students to know what is expected [of them] and where we are going.”

Another piece of advice for new faculty is that they don’t need to know all of the answers.

“You have to know how to ask the right questions and give students the opportunity to explore and engage with the material and come up with their own interpretation,” she said.

FROM THE SOURCE

photo - Emnet Almedom

Emnet Almedom, a 2013 Tech graduate, studied international affairs and Spanish. She began taking classes with Professor Kelly Comfort during her freshman year.

“I always remember her asking us to bring a photo of ourselves on the first day so she could start memorizing names in the 30-person class by the next week,” Almedom said. “From then, I was hooked and took three other classes with Kelly, including my senior capstone class where we interned with local organizations while writing our Spanish theses.”

Almedom said Comfort’s class was initially recommended to her because she came to Tech with a lot of Spanish grammar and writing experience, but she needed more of the ‘real’ side of language learning — such as learning her cadence, getting comfortable with different accents, and even learning to coach and be coached by classmates.

“My first class with her did just that, and she also gave me great perspective on what I could learn from other professors in her department,” Almedom said. “She was the first professor to recommend the Mexico LBAT (Language for Business & Technology Program) to me, which was the most formative of my college experiences and the experience that moved my Spanish skills along the furthest.”  

Almedom said that in most classes she took with Comfort, there was an expectation that the students would go into the Latino community in Atlanta to conduct interviews at a local mall or to intern/volunteer with community organizations. 

“She very intentionally pairs language instruction with cultural learning and exchange. Most of my professors at Tech did this, but usually through film, literature, or study abroad,” Almedom said. “Kelly made me more aware of what was happening in our own city and how we can be more active participants.” 

Almedom said that Comfort brings a personal touch to any experience — in the classroom, during office hours, or as the advisor for the International House residence hall where she lived.

“She'll give you the theory and resources you need to improve your skills, but the part that sticks with you is the appreciation for culture, personal stories, and history alongside the mechanics of grammar,” Almedom said.

Today, Almedom works in public sector consulting with Deloitte in Washington, DC. She said she doesn’t have occasion to speak Spanish as much as her younger self would have thought, but she takes any opportunity to do so.

“In the Classroom” is a series showcasing some of Georgia Tech’s award-winning teachers, delving into what they teach, how they do it, and what motivates them.

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Writer: Victor Rogers
Photographer: Fitrah Hamid
Art Director: Melanie Goux