This year, we lost our greatest teacher. Willis Konick died on November 30, 2016. He was 86. For 55 of those years he taught in the departments of Slavic and Comparative Literature at UW, his alma mater. We want to acknowledge the loss of Willis by highlighting his extraordinary contributions to our department.
As a teacher, he was widely known and respected. Students heard of “Willis” from the moment they arrived on campus, and they scrambled to take his classes. Most popular were those organized around themes in world literature such as “Parents and Children,” “Love, Sex, and Murder,” and “Death and Transfiguration.” At one point, these classes regularly enrolled 400 students. Willis was best known for his use of role play and improvisational acting in his teaching. In 1979, he was featured in a PBS broadcast called “Willis.” It captures his spirited performance in the classroom -- how he ran up and down the aisles, addressed students by their names, drew them into vignettes, acted out scenes from fictional narratives, and connected them to the dilemmas and choices facing students in their own lives. He reached tens of thousands of students in this way. But the show doesn’t give a sense of all the work and planning and experimentation that made Willis’s teaching so effective. His was a theatrical version of what is now called “active learning,” only he developed the techniques on his own and perfected them over time. He also spent far more hours in his office meeting students individually than any other colleague. His success as a teacher didn’t derive just from his talent for improvisational theater; it was dedicated work.
Willis was also an early proponent of film studies in our department, and the only faculty member to hold large lectures in film as well as in literature. His popular courses on film noir, on “great directors,” and his introductory lectures on “How to Read a Film” created the foundation for our new degree program in Cinema and Media Studies.
In addition to his teaching, Willis dedicated himself to mentoring graduate students as teachers in training as well as new and experienced faculty in the department and across campus.
Willis was a dear friend to faculty, staff, and students. He will be missed.
A memorial service is planned for Sunday, December 11, 2:00pm at Mt. Baker Presbyterian Church.