We all have that favorite professor. That one we really related to, really connected with. That one who made calculus click or Rembrandt relevant. Who, most important, made us passionate about learning. At the College of Charleston, we have Hispanic studies instructor Devon Wray Hanahan ’87, a standout not just on campus, but nationwide. For her students – who’ve collectively made her the second highest-rated college instructor in the country – she will always be that one.
Words by Alicia Lutz ’98
Images by Leslie McKellar
It makes its way down Liberty Street, slowing down as it turns onto King, where the Friday afternoon foot traffic s in full force. It’s a chatty little swarm, with 14 voices all hoping to be heard by the connecting force at its center: Devon Wray Hanahan ’87.
Hanahan is oblivious to the attention she’s getting – to the 14 pairs of eyes watching her, the 14 pairs of ears hanging onto her every word. She’s much more interested in the girls themselves. She hasn’t seen these students since last semester, when she took them to see Santa at the Holiday Festival of Lights on James Island before having them over for dinner and a movie. She wants to know all about their holiday breaks, what they did for fun, what kind of dorm-life drama they’re having these days.
“What happened to your terrible roommate?” she asks one of the girls as they file into the line at Starbucks.
The girl gushes a little bit under Hanahan’s attention: She remembered something about me! As she relays the latest in the “terrible roommate” saga, the other girls eye her, impatiently waiting their turn.
They needn’t wait long: If there’s one thing that Hanahan has mastered, it’s the art of inclusion, of connecting everyone to the conversation, bringing everyone into the fold. She relates to each one of the students individually, turning her entire body to give them her full attention, connecting to them on a personal level. But she isn’t just being a good conversationalist – she is genuinely interested in what these students say.
“I’ve got a Caramel Flan Latte for Devon,” the Starbucks barista announces with affected showmanship. “And here’s a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappucino for Devon. … This is a Cappuccino for Devon. … And I have a Café Americano for Devon.”
The barista isn’t halfway through calling out all the orders before an older woman in a tailored red blazer and a stately gold necklace finally asks: “Are you really all named Devon?”
The group giggles.
“No,” says the students’ former First-Year Experience teacher. “I’m Devon. And these are all my children.”
Hanahan is at once the It girl, the teacher, the mother, the advocate, the friend. She’s also a Cougar through and through, having grown up on campus while her mom taught in the School of Education, then attending the College from 1983 to 1987 before joining the Hispanic studies faculty in 1995. Since then, she has (almost) never missed a men’s basketball game – making her a favorite among the players, coaches and fans alike.
But it’s her students who did the voting, her students who tallied up all the sweet treats she’s brought them, all the dinners she’s hosted for them, all the lessons she’s taught them, all the creativity she’s mustered for them, all the appreciation for language she’s bestowed on them, all the extra attention, time – and, yes, love – she’s given them.
It all adds up.
In fact, when you put it all together, you end up with something pretty special: the second highest-rated instructor in the country on RateMyProfessors.com.
It’s the second time Hanahan has been ranked at No. 2 on the mtvU website, which allows students to evaluate their professors according to various criteria, including clarity and helpfulness, as well as to make comments. Suffice it to say, Hanahan’s comments are all over the top. All 99 of them read something like this:
The best teacher on the PLANET! She is amazing. She cares and is understanding. She isn’t easy – she is just a really good teacher. This makes the tests “easy” because she has taught the material so well. She invited her students to her house for hot chocolate and stuff. She is the bomb!
Yep. Her students adore her.
“When I saw the RateMyProfessors news,” says Hanahan’s former student Christen Chaconas ’12, “I sent her a text message and said, ‘You’re No. 1 in my book!’”
And, since the 2012–13 rating, Hanahan’s overall score of 5.0 has indeed beat out her No. 1 opponent. Not that she puts too much stock in any of it.
“There’s no way to tell who the best teacher is in the country. It’s just a popularity contest,” she says, adding that she much more appreciated being named one of “The Best 300 Professors” by The Princeton Review, which took its numbers from the website RateMyProfessors.com. “I am not in teaching to be popular. I want to share my love of the language with as many kids as possible and give them the confidence that they can use what they learn outside of the classroom one day. I just happen to have a lot of fun while I’m doing that!”
And, she’s quick to point out, she has a fun subject to teach.
“You know, come on: I lucked out! If I were teaching microbiology, I couldn’t blather on about the things I do,” she laughs. “The great thing about teaching a language is, we’re basically just spending time together and talking. Where else can you talk about your lives and get to know each other in class?
“It’s just hanging out in another language,” continues Hanahan. “I think it’s the only subject where life is your palette for the classroom. It’s a forum in which we get to know each other, make real connections.”
She cares so much about all her students and will do anything to help you out. I have to say, one of the most impressive moments was the first day of class – she memorized 28 kids’ names within the first 15 minutes.
It’s her first class, and Sarah Hotham ’11 sits at the back of the room. A naturally quiet person, she doesn’t know anyone at the College, and no one knows her – not even her name. By the end of the 50-minute class, however, all that has changed: The entire class knows who she is, that she’s from Charlotte, has just transferred from a school over 500 miles away and that her favorite book is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
And Devon Hanahan, for one, will never forget any of it.
“She took that information from Day One and remembered things that were pertinent to each individual student,” says Hotham, recalling that, years later, Hanahan was cleaning up around her house and found a copy of Rand’s For the New Intellectual, which – remembering her love for Atlas Shrugged – she passed along to Hotham. “Amazing that she remembered that.”
“I just try to connect something with each one of them personally,” says Hanahan of her ability to remember her students’ names after one day and their favorite books after three years. “I really, genuinely enjoy meeting students and learning about them. I feel a real connection with all of them. I care for each and every one of them.”
And there it is: She cares. And not in a general, detached way. Not in an academics-only way. Not in a life-ceases-to-exist-outside-the-classroom way. Because it doesn’t, and she knows that. Students are always more than students.
“My attitude is, they’re all somebody’s child,” she says. “If my kid’s off at college, I would want them to have someone to call. It’s like I have 80 children all the time.”
“She cares about each one of her students and wants them all to do well. And she’s really proud of their accomplishments,” says Chaconas, who calls Hanahan her “at-school mom. She came and supported me at my science and mathematics presentation, and even invited the class to come, too. She was like that with everyone!”
Indeed, this is the woman who has her students over for dinner or to do their laundry, who brings them to her parents’ home on Bohicket Creek for Thanksgiving dinner, who invites them to everything from the movies to the Thriller Dance Party at Marion Square, who takes them to counseling or the clinic when they need it, who attends their concerts, plays and sports events. And it doesn’t really let up once they graduate: They’re part of her family now. That means picking them up at the airport, visiting them in Brooklyn, attending their weddings.
“She’s just very interested in everyone’s lives,” says Hotham. “I have no idea how she is able to keep up with so many people!”
“I think that’s just a part of who I am. It’s hard to explain,” Hanahan says. “I think I have a great capacity to love people.”
A bit about Hanahan’s childhood: The youngest of seven children, Hanahan grew up listening to, watching, learning from and caring for a pretty substantial team. She had a natural curiosity for what people – especially her older siblings – were up to, what she could learn from them.
She learned the rules of football from her oldest brother, Rob. She picked up the piano from her middle sister, Kieran (Wray Kramer ’85). She learned how to sail by watching the family work together on its 45-foot yawl. But it was, perhaps, her eldest sister, Megan, who taught her the most.
Born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, Megan was severely brain damaged and handicapped. She had to be fed and changed all her life – chores that Hanahan and her siblings shared. Megan was always there – a silent presence in the family.
“That was normal to me,” Hanahan says. “I thought every family had a Megan.”
Back then, Megan didn’t seem to offer more than the occasional laugh or smile. But, in hindsight, what she actually gave the family is much more than that.
“She kept us grounded, and her life taught us a lot about love, loving unconditionally,” says Hanahan. “Having Megan maybe gave me – and, my mother, for sure – a great capacity to love.”
“Megan made a profound impression on her siblings,” agrees Hanahan’s mother, retired secondary education professor Rosanne Wray. “I think that’s why they’re such great people. They’re all compassionate, they’re all caring. Megan was a big influence on them growing up.”
Megan’s three sisters (who were the youngest of the brood) and three brothers – along with their live-in British nanny, Jean – made up a regular Brady Bunch sitcom, something that was not lost on the Wrays.
Because of the size of the family, Hanahan and her siblings were taught to raise their hands before speaking at the dinner table: Everyone deserved to be heard. Everyone had something important to say – you just had to listen. And, with this system in place, everyone knew what he or she was saying was being heard, and felt valued as members of the family.
This was also a lesson in the value of roles. Everyone needed to belong. To have something to work toward: You do your part, I’ll do mine.
Like her ability to take interest in many different people, to pay attention to the individuals in a big group, Hanahan’s understanding of working together – doing your part, according to your role in the family – is something that has carried over from her childhood to her classroom.
“I always tell my students, if they put in their effort, I’ll put in mine,” she says. “I’ll meet you half way. But I can’t do it alone.”
And, as long as they know their role – as long as they feel like they’re a part of something – students typically respond with enthusiasm.
“When a student walks into your classroom, you give him the role of belonging. And, when they have a sense of belonging – and I think Devon’s students do – they will work for you. Because they know they’re valued,” says Wray, who was a high school teacher for 15 years before coming to the College in 1978 – and who, like Hanahan, had an open-door policy and often brought her students home for dinner, too. “I used to try to cultivate, even in college, a sense of we-ness – just like you create in a family. I’ve never really talked to Devon about that, but I think her classes have that same sense. So that, when they do come into your room, they feel like they belong, they feel comfortable, at home.”
It certainly worked for Hotham – even on that first day of class, when she knew no one at all at the College.
“She made me comfortable and I really opened up. She became not only my teacher, but a friend and a mother to me. And through my relationship with her, I met so many people,” says Hotham. “She always saw something in me that I think I didn’t see in myself. And, through her, I developed an even deeper passion for learning.”
She is the definition of a TEACHER. … I was SO LUCKY to get into her class. … She makes everything crystal clear. She treats students as people, we laugh in her class, she does fun activities to help us, and you ACTUALLY learn in her class! I was so scared about Spanish, but she makes it so much fun!
The faded and deflated tennis ball shoots across the Maybank Hall classroom, landing in the hesitant hands of a student in the third row.
“Ah, Charlie! What was the last thing you did before class?” Hanahan asks in clear, unhurried Spanish. “Did you talk to a friend?”
Charlie falters a little before answering that he finished his homework and ate lunch before coming into class.
“And what did you have for lunch?”
“A sandwich of …,” Charlie answers, trailing off.
“Did it have ham?” Hanahan asks. “Or maybe turkey? Gobble, gobble. Like at Thanksgiving? Turkey makes us so tired!”
“Yes, turkey,” Charlie says in Spanish, and he throws the ball to another student and asks her what she did last weekend.
The game goes on like this – with students asking one another questions, and their teacher coaxing them, enticing their answers out of them, but still letting them figure out what it is they want to say. She plays off their answers in such a way that they feel good about how they’ve answered, even when it’s not spot on.
“Remember, each word doesn’t need to be perfect,” she repeats often in her bright, melodic Spanish. “As long as you communicate your idea!”
It’s the most important message she can get across.
“I always remind them that, linguistically, they’re toddlers. You’re not going to be talking like an adult in Spanish. You’re going to be talking like a 2-year-old, and that’s OK. That seems to relax them a little bit,” says Hanahan, who gave a talk, “How to Lower the Fear Factor,” at the 2012 Southern Conference on Language Teaching. “I believe that fear is the biggest issue when it comes to language. I say, ‘Hey, you have nothing to lose.’ I try to encourage them to just start speaking before it’s correct.”
“She teaches you that you just have to get your point across, not say it perfectly. She says if she gets the point, that is perfect enough,” says Hanahan’s former student Stephen Gorman, a junior mathematics major. “You are supposed to be speaking like you’re learning the language, not like a native. Once you realize that, the barrier that stops you from speaking goes away. I’m serious: It just went away. Suddenly, I was not freezing up anymore.”
With that goal of perfection – that barrier – out of the way, students can really open up and have fun with the language. That’s why Hanahan tries to get students to let loose and just enjoy using Spanish with classroom activities like fashion shows, Jeopardy! games and sing-alongs to, oh, who knows … a Christina Aguilera song, perhaps.
“I play music almost every class, but I like to make every day different. Sometimes I’ll do something crazy, like I’ll wear a costume or something to spice things up,” says Hanahan. “I think it’s important that students realize that learning and the classroom are not pods that are separated from real life. They’re just a part of the flow of real life. Learning is just something we do as part of life, so I try to have my classroom feel like that: just something interesting to do today.”
“You got the feeling that if you’re not in class, you’re missing out. You didn’t want to miss out on all the fun,” says Gorman. “And besides, the way I thought about her classes was that I was lucky to be in them, lucky to have some time in her classroom, so you don’t just skip out on that time that’s given to you!”
Those fortunate enough to get into Hanahan’s classes – which usually fill up faster than you can say “override” – definitely have their fair share of (educational) entertainment. Even without the costumes, games and pop songs, the material seems fun because, well, Hanahan is fun. Even when her jokes are lost on her students, her silly sense of humor always has a way of transcending the language barrier.
“Oooh! Mágico!” she might exclaim when the projector casts an image onto the screen.
Or, looking at an illustration in the textbook, she might wonder out loud, “Why do seals always have to be pictured with a ball? No sé. I’m sure there are other things they like to do!”
Or, when the class is reviewing a story about Luis, who is traveling all over Latin America, she might muse, “Oh, Luis! I wish I could be friends with him!”
“I’m sort of the class clown,” laughs Hanahan. “I am always myself in the classroom. I think the students appreciate that.”
Of course they do. But, ask any of her students, current or past, and they’ll all tell you that what they really appreciate – what they really admire and wish they saw in more teachers – is Hanahan’s veritable talent for breaking things down into digestible, easily understood rules.
“She has that way of explaining something complicated and making it seem easy,” says Chaconas, who had tried to learn the subjunctive mood in previous classes before she took Spanish 201 from Hanahan. “It made so much more sense when she taught it to me. She just has a knack for making things logical.”
“You know, it’s funny: My oldest brother, Rob, can explain anything in simple steps. He can take very complex things – things like the Bernoulli theory of flight – and make them simple. And I think I can do that, too. At least that’s what kids have said to me,” says Hanahan. “For me, the key is breaking concepts down into simple steps. I always say, ‘Here are your default rules – the simple rules you need when you’re panicked and speaking. And now I’m going to expand on them a little bit.’”
Hanahan takes her cues from her days as a student at the College – namely from emerita professor of mathematics Susan Prazak, who was able to break calculus down into what seemed like simple arithmetic.
“She would always say, ‘People, you’re going to be able to do this. This is easy, this is no problem.’ And we always believed her. And I always try to say that, too,” says Hanahan. “She’s also the reason I give candy out during exams. She’d say, ‘If you have candy, it can’t be that bad,’ and that’s something that I’ve always remembered.”
She’s also always remembered how much she hated being kept after class when she had another class or a job to get to. And how much she hated waiting too long to get her papers and exams back.
“Those are the two things I really try hard not to do. I try to identify with myself as a student and what was important to me then,” she says, noting that that does not make her a pushover. “If they arrive late, I’ll make them stay after the same number of minutes they were late. I’ll take their cell phones from them. I’ll hand them back their assignments if it’s not neatly done. I have high standards for them.”
Speaking of high standards: Hanahan’s mom, who trained countless student teachers in her day, knows a thing or two about teaching. And – after taking two of her courses – thankfully, she thinks just as highly of Hanahan as her students do.
“I’m a hard critic when it comes to teachers, but Devon really is an excellent, excellent teacher,” says Wray. “When I was at the College, you could almost tell the first week: Some of the students just have a quality about them that reaches out in the classroom. They’re born with it. Great teachers are born – and I think Devon is one of those great teachers.”
Lauren Laird ’13 couldn’t agree more: “The first day of class she greeted us with a warm welcome and I realized Spanish would be different from then on! Not only did Professor Hanahan make Spanish more approachable for me, she totally changed my outlook on the language. She will leave a mark on me forever.”
Hanahan is able to connect her students to the Spanish language in ways that they have never done before. She empowers them. Gives them confidence. Makes them comfortable. And not just with language, but with themselves in their surroundings.
“She’s the reason I feel connected to the College. She made it comfortable for me, like home,” agrees Chaconas. “The College is home because of her.”
Amazing. College of Charleston’s greatest treasure.
She’s up. She’s down. She’s on the edge of her seat. Back on her feet. She throws her hands up in disbelief at a foul call. She prays at free throws. She dances – albeit mutedly, and maybe a little off beat – when the band plays. She claps in time when the announcer rallies the crowd. She calls out to the players by name, shouting her support. She boos. She chants. She whoops and she hollers.
And she jumps. Hanahan jumps. A lot. So much so that she’s come to be known as the Jumping Lady in TD Arena.
She’s a good fan – a staple on the sidelines of the men’s basketball games. She’s engaged. She’s supportive. She even bakes cookies for the players. That may be why she was named the Cougar Club Faculty/Staff Fan of the Year a few years back.
More likely, though, it’s because she’s only missed one home game in 10 years. She and her family have been right here, cheering the wins and lamenting the losses, in the front-row floor seats every single game. This is their spot. This is their scene. These are their people.
“I’m here for those kids out there playing – I’m genuinely proud of them. But I’m also here for school spirit – I think that’s important. Feeling that sense of connection. Life is all about connections. You know? No man’s an island and all that. And I just feel very connected to the whole when I’m here,” Hanahan says. “You get to know the same people. You look behind you, you look over there, and you may not know everyone’s name, but you’re just part of this community, and it’s fun. It gives you a sense of belonging, of community.”
This Cougars basketball community only strengthens Hanahan’s already-formidable connection to the College. She was 12 years old when her mother joined the College faculty, and coming to campus meant one of three things: Her family was going to a basketball game in the old Silcox gym, she and her sisters had to wait for their mom to get off work and take them home, or the electricity was out at their home.
Life was an adventure at their home on Johns Island. And sometimes that meant the power would go out. And, when it did, it meant they didn’t have water, either. So, rather than bathing in the creek, Wray would take her kids into her office on the corner of College and Green ways and let them wash up in her private bathroom.
“How I got that office, I don’t know,” laughs Wray. “I just lucked into it, I guess.”
Most of Hanahan’s visits to Wray’s office did not involve bathing, however. She and her siblings went to school at Bishop England, then located where the College’s Addlestone Library is now, and would simply walk over to their mom’s office after school to wait for Wray to finish up for the day. If they weren’t reading or doing their homework, they would go out and explore.
“It was nice having the College of Charleston as my playground,” says Hanahan, recalling the days of running around campus, playing on the Cistern and roaming the strange, vast buildings. “We spent a lot of time scraping up money to get French fries at the Hungry Lion – which is now Jack’s. We just acted like kids on the loose, I guess.”
Perhaps the Wray girls’ familiarity with the campus had something to do with the fact that all three chose to attend the College when the time came. The decision – at least for Hanahan, who’d also attended the South Carolina Governor’s School on the College’s campus the previous summer – was a no-brainer.
“I had this full Presidential Scholarship to this wonderful school that I already loved and felt a part of. I couldn’t wait,” she says, adding: “It did feel different to be here as a student – I felt like I owned the city. I was very independent.”
She had to be: She was putting herself through school, with just the help of her Presidential Scholarship and a $1,000 National Merit Scholarship. Enrolled in the Honors College, Hanahan kept afloat (and busy) by working 15 hours a week as a student secretary in the Department of Education and five nights a week at San Miguel’s Mexican restaurant in the Market.
“I honestly don’t know when I slept or studied,” Hanahan says. “I can still remember standing in the waitress station at San Miguel’s, and I’d have my book here, and I’d open it up and I’d put the order in for drinks, and I’d work on my calculus problem, and then I’d take the tray and I’d go to deliver the drinks, and I’d come back and I’d work on the next calculus problem. I just did whatever I had to do.”
As long as it didn’t interfere with the basketball games.
“We all went to the games back then! The whole student body. You just didn’t miss a basketball game. That was, like, our whole center of social life,” Hanahan recalls, noting that the then–newly built John Kresse Arena made for an experience so much better than the games she’d attended in the Silcox gym as a kid. “I just remember it being hot as hell in there, and feeling very removed, because we’d be up there, looking down. The Kresse Arena is where I finally really got into the game. It was so much fun! It was just a huge surge of spirit.”
As a busy student, she rarely saw her mother, who actually spent one of Hanahan’s college years on sabbatical, sailing in the Caribbean and working on her (still-unfinished) book, How to Really Teach High School. Before she embarked, however, both Hanahan and her older sister Kieran enrolled in their mother’s adolescent psychology course.
“I was a practitioner, not just a theorist, and I always drew on my own personal experiences as a mother of seven with adolescents. So, when I found out they were in my class, I thought, Uh-oh! I’ll have to watch what I say!” chuckles Wray. “But they both did very well. There were two As in that class, and, mortifyingly, they were Devon and Kieran. I went to the department chair, but I had all the evidence. They just did very well in their classes!”
All three girls – Hanahan, Kieran and Kristin Wray Wilda ’82 – made her proud. And, at each of their commencement ceremonies, when she saw them wearing the white dress she’d made – passed down from sister to sister – as they walked across the Cistern to receive a diploma, Wray couldn’t be happier to be the one presenting it.
“That was very special for all of us, I think,” says Wray, who retired in 1988 and remains connected to the College through its newly established Retired Faculty and Staff Council.
Hanahan, for her part, walked straight off the commencement stage and into a Spanish teaching position at James Island High School. Seven years later, however, she just couldn’t stay away from the College any longer, and returned to campus as a member of the Hispanic studies faculty.
“It’s kind of weird to have seen the College from so many perspectives: as a child coming to wait at my mom’s office for a ride, as a student, as an instructor, as a potential parent (my oldest might be here next year),” says Hanahan. “At this point, the College has been so much a part of my life – I’m so connected to it – that it’s hard to imagine life without it.”
That’s even more true when you stop to consider how much the College, its students and its alumni are integrated into Hanahan’s family. Her students have not just visited her home for the past 15 years, they’ve become legitimate parts of her family’s lives – especially in those of her sons, Will and Thomas, ages 18 and 16. In fact, Will is going to spend three weeks this summer in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., living with and interning for two alumni who used to babysit him and his brother.
“My boys’ lives, I think, have been immeasurably impacted. It’s been absolutely wonderful for them to have all these dozens and dozens of big brothers and sisters,” says Hanahan. “And my husband has made it easy for me to open my home to the students, because he loves them, too.”
Besides, even though her husband attended the University of Virginia, he has some serious College of Charleston ties himself: Two of his ancestors, Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, were founders.
“We really have a lot of ties here!” Hanahan marvels, adding that, as much a part of her life the College has been – and as much time as she has spent on its campus – its beauty still blows her away every day. “I guess that means I’m in the right place – the place I belong.”
Walking back to campus from Starbucks, Hanahan and the First-Year Experience students can’t make it more than two storefronts without running into someone Hanahan knows – someone who wants to say hello, give a hug, share some news. Hanahan stops and catches up, sidewalk-style, before rejoining the group and taking a few more steps before there’s another person she knows and loves.
It’s like a constant parade of friends – or perhaps a widely spaced receiving line. But, if it’s anything out of the ordinary for Hanahan, she doesn’t seem to notice.
“You’re so popular! Everyone wants to stop and talk to you!” one of the students observes.
“No, it’s just that I’ve been here forever,” Hanahan laughs dismissively.
“No,” the 14 voices contend all at once, “it’s because you’re popular!”
You don’t get voted the country’s No. 2 professor without being popular. But you also don’t get that popular among students without good reason.
And Hanahan gives her students good reason: She can connect. That’s what makes her a fantastic friend, teacher, mentor and mother figure.
And that’s what makes her one popular lady on campus.