In Susan Trout’s office, the walls, door, her bookshelves and even her desk are barely visible.
The surface of the door is entirely covered in photos of the “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling meme, a teaching schedule and notes from students. A file cabinet in the corner boasts cartoons, including one highlighting her favorite author in an amusing declaration of “Faulk it!” The front of her desk is lined with student-made photo manipulations of various English faculty members and a tweet from a student praising the deity that ensured a successful registration. The desk itself displays a fish-shaped stapler and a Star Trek nutcracker.
Behind her desk, it is almost possible to hear the overflowing bookshelf groaning under the weight of the novels and the framed photo of various species of trout that it contains. The walls draw attention to photos of her children, memorabilia from previous classes and pictures of students.
One thing the eye never notices is a Chaney Distinguished Professor Award, the highest honor a teacher at Belmont can receive. Though she has won it in the past, that’s not the type of things Trout prides herself on.
Her priorities are more along the lines of how she runs in class.
“I’ve always tried really hard to create a culture in which there’s an assumption that we are going to have an intelligent conversation together,” said Trout. “I think, unless I get mad, I’ve always thought, I treated students like adults.”
Needless to say, considering how quickly her classes fill up every semester, her students tend to agree.
“She’s a phenomenal teacher. She pushes you. She helps you bring your ideas full circle. She helps you capitalize on the best parts of your mind,” said Hallie Caddy, a senior English literature major.
Caddy has taken many classes from Trout and seems to gain as much knowledge from them as she does enjoyment.
“She has a way of creatively making you think about what you’re reading. It’s not just, let’s have a discussion, it’s let’s have an informed discussion,” said Caddy. “It just makes the text seem beautiful and worth more. You value your opinions on things. It makes you feel smarter.”
William Dodd, a literature major who started out as a writing student, cites Trout as his reason for loving literature.
“[American Literature II] was something that really changed my whole perception of reading. If a teacher’s goal is to give students hunger and zest for what they love, in Trout’s case, literature, that’s the goal achieved,” said Dodd. “She helped me discover my love for reading. I didn’t know about it before I took her class. I respect her like crazy. Any academic success I’ve had here, especially in English, is thanks to her.”
Trout has been teaching at Belmont since 1991 and has apparently mastered the art of holding many roles in the lives of students. She is a professor, adviser, faculty sponsor of the English Club and the sender of almost any email that finds its way into an English student’s inbox.
“She’s clearly a beloved professor. She makes sure that they get what they need from her, whether it is good instruction, advising or life instruction,” said Dr. David Curtis, fellow English professor and Associate Dean for the College of Arts & Sciences. “She has never turned down an opportunity to make the English program stronger or help out students.”
Dr. Caresse John, an English professor and a friend of Trout, agreed.
“She plays a lot of roles in their lives yet still puts up boundaries. She never steps over a line. That’s very hard to do and she’s mastered that,” John said. “She can be a friend, when needed, she can advise, she can teach, she can listen, she can challenge, she can scare.”
Scaring is something that Trout has to take seriously at times. Often, when looking at the roster of students signed up to take one of her upper-level literature courses, she finds some registered that may be in over their heads.
Her way of combatting this? She sends out an email to those registered letting them know just what they will be in for the next semester with vaguely terrifying descriptions and disclaimers.
Her Southern Literature course this spring is no exception, and may have even come with more warnings as it is her self-professed “heart’s darling.” The course will feature her “one true love-Faulkner.”
Trout’s degree specialty resides in American literature, specifically 20th Century with a focus on Southern, a severe change from her original intent.
“That’s one of the great ironies. When I started grad school, I was going to be a Shakespearian,” said Trout.
Her heart now belongs to Southern literature, and as anyone who has even spoken to her once knows, specifically to Faulkner. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean his writing is her only love.
“Someone asked me my five favorite Southern novels and I told them it was like asking me which child is my favorite,” said Trout.
She made a similar statement about choosing a favorite class, noting that Critical Reading and Writing, a course she teaches every semester, feels like home to her, yet she shows equal enthusiasm for her specific, upper-level classes.
After explaining her love for teaching Southern Lit comes from honestly wanting to share what she sees in the writing, Trout pauses. “But I also love Postmodernism. It’s so different from what students are used to … It’s a course that destabilizes students,” she said.
She isn’t wrong on that front. The Postmodern course mentioned is being taught currently and it came with a disclaimer itself, warning potential students of the delicate subject matters of the novels, including pedophilia, beastiality, incest and murder.
The discussions in the class would normally have the potential to unsettle students, but, like most courses Trout teaches, the debates are often interspersed with jokes, sarcasm and bouts of laughter.
“I really feel like you can have fun and do serious scholarly work at the same time,” said Trout. “Any time you’re teaching, all the pedagogies back this up, students cannot sit in a chair for 50 minutes without a few breaks.”
Her students also seem to enjoy the humor she infuses a class with.
“She’s just so personable. She has an understated intelligence,” said Greg Lesley, an adult student who took the Postmodern course. “If you don’t laugh in her class, you really don’t have a sense of humor.”
John notes that her humor is not limited to her students, but rather is one of the reasons many tend to seek her out outside the classroom.
“She’s like the funniest person I know; it’s why I gravitate to her. She has a very unique, very ‘her’ humor,” said John. “She brings a lot of lightheartedness to this hallway.”
Her humor can help bring her closer and more approachable to students but her relationship with students comes from so many aspects of her entire personality.
Curtis remembers the first time he had heard of Trout, then Sue Tully, when he had started teaching in 1996 and took over a class Trout had normally taught.
“My very first day teaching at Belmont, she had left, I’m not sure what the reason was, but it was an American literature survey. Immediately, I’m coming in, looking up, all eager. The first thing I hear in my very first class was someone in the back going, ‘Hey! You’re not Sue Tully.’ That’s the first time I heard her name. I knew that it was someone I needed to know, because apparently, she can have that effect on people,” he said.
This desire students have to take courses with Sue Trout remains strong over 15 years later, as there are a few students who are members of “Trout University,” a joking name that is both applied to the few students that will be graduating with more than seven classes with Trout under their belts and the set of rules that Trout uses in her courses.
“It’s basically a running joke in classes, but sometimes, with students, I say these are the rules for Trout University. I made a reference to that with my freshmen the other day. I said, ‘In Trout University, every quotation will be integrated.’ And every quotation was integrated. On 40 freshmen papers,” said Trout.
Dodd, a member of “Trout University,” will have taken seven courses with the professor. From the first class he attended, he was hooked.
“She taught literature as a subject. Not just reading, but the history around it. The reading around us…it affected us so much because of the history around it. It really resonated with me because it seemed that after she taught lit as a historical context, it became big, it changed what people thought and in a way it changes history,” said Dodd.
Though ‘Trout University’ courses tend to require a lot of hard work, some students will even work schedules around classes she teaches, both majors and non-majors alike. The courseload is a small price to pay for the learning experience they will have in a class set up the way Trout’s are.
“I very much respect her ability to both have students have fun and want to be in her classes … and challenge them and have them work hard for her,” said John. “It’s not like ‘she’s so cool we don’t have to do anything,’ rather it’s ‘she’s so cool we want her to respect us.’”
The respect and care Trout’s students truly have for her was apparent when her health hit a rough patch a year ago, students came out in droves to help her get through it.
“I think I realized it, and all the other students did as well, that this rock of a woman, was in need,” said Dodd. “Seeing the way her students responded to her in her moment of need was beautiful…I remember telling her to remember just how much she is loved and let herself be taken care of. It was really special for me to see because I’ve never seen any professor get that kind of care from students.”
The respect is mutual thanks to the environment Trout fosters in her class, one of conversation and equality. All opinions and discussions are welcome and debate is common, even in upper-level courses that take place early in the morning.
Classes like these are where it becomes evident what Trout truly takes pride in.
“There’s a culture that when they leave the room, they’re still talking about Cormac McCarthy or “Lolita” and that’s all I can ask for.”