Photo of Karen Potter

Dance’s Karen Potter honored with 2020 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching

Years ago, Karen Potter (GRS ’89), professor and chair of the Department of Dance, observed a colleague providing feedback to a student. The exchange was quiet and private so that only the student could hear the instructor’s words of criticism or praise.

Potter was so impressed by what she observed that she adopted a similar technique, “facilitating a more positive and nurturing environment,” she said.

Her openness to new ideas is just one of the reasons why Potter has been honored with the 2020 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching. She will receive the award during commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 17. 

Potter has been honored by the Case Western Reserve University community before. She received the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Mentoring in 2015, and she has been nominated for the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and three times for the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring.

Drawn to dance, teaching from an early age

Teaching dance combines Potter’s two great passions. From an early age, the native Texan wanted to teach. 

“By the time I was 10, I knew I would be a teacher,” she recalled. “I pretended, with imaginary students, to teach geography—a subject I loved—holding my favorite granite rock as if it were a globe and pointing with a pencil to various ‘places.’”

Eventually, dance, not geography, would be her calling. Her first teaching job was a graduate assistantship, followed by an appointment as instructor at The State University of New York College at Cortland. She has danced before audiences on national and international stages, including a 14-year association with the prestigious Erick Hawkins Dance Company as a dancer and teacher. 

Potter joined the CWRU faculty in 1999 as director of the dance program. In 2011, she was appointed chair of the newly created Department of Dance when theater and dance became separate departments.

Helping students see their potential

While Potter is passionate about the art of dance, she’s even more passionate about helping dance students believe in their abilities. She wears many hats: guide, mirror, partner, listener, viewer, critic and believer. 

“I always encourage students, in their journey, to do, to test, to challenge, to feel and to experience,” she said. “I relish my role with them on their journey.” 

“Professor Potter celebrates victories and breakthroughs with students,” said one of her nominators. “During times when students are struggling she … offers insight and empathy but also lights a fire in the student to keep creating, developing and harnessing what is good in the material.”

“Karen encouraged me as a person whose voice had value, and prevailed upon me to challenge myself intellectually by learning how to articulate what I was seeing in the work done by my peers,” said a former student. “Responding to her exhortation not only made me more confident, it also made me more observant, and my own work got better as a result.”

Potter has no plans to rest on her accomplishments.

“While this is such an honor, it doesn’t mean that I have ‘arrived’ at some special place in my nearly 50 years of teaching,” she said. “Instead it means that … I must continue to give my absolute best to my students whether in the classroom or studio. I grow with my students and they help shape me to be the teacher I am.”

About the award

The Diekhoff Award honors John S. Diekhoff, a distinguished scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator who served Case Western Reserve in several capacities during his tenure, from 1956 to 1970. He was professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

The Diekhoff Award, established in 1978, recognizes outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising and classroom teaching. The annual award is presented to two faculty members who epitomize what it means to teach graduate students: to connect them with experts in their discipline, engage them academically in a forthright and collegial manner, and actively promote their professional development. In 2009, the Diekhoff Award was expanded to recognize two additional full-time faculty members who excel in the mentoring of graduate students. A committee of graduate students with the guidance of the School of Graduate Studies reviews the nominations and recommends winners.