Beginning a sad farewell

English professor Flo Keyes is pictured in her office.

Within the depths of the English department is a professor loved by many, and equally disliked by others.

On the surface she seems very stern, and even mean, but behind that front, Professor Flo Keyes is as loveable as a teacher can get.

“She’s wicked funny, and I feel like people can’t get past the strictness because they don’t realize how funny she is,” said Jess Emery, a student working with Professor Keyes for an independent study. “She makes these comments that are hilarious, and I don’t know if people can’t tell she’s kidding, but they won’t laugh and she’s like a comedian.”

The reason for students not liking her is clear as day: she makes her students actually read the books she assigns.

“I have high standards and I’m a tough grader… If you came in expecting an easy A, or if you came in planning to pass the class without doing any work then you’re going to be disappointed,” Keyes said. “My method of teaching puts a lot of the work on them, and they don’t wanna work that hard.”

Class Time with Keyes consists of a lot of discussion about the books that she assigns. It’s simple – if students pay attention to the readings, they can answer her questions just fine, and they can start their own discussions in class based on her questions.

Keyes is pictured in an iconic “Green Knight” Halloween costume.

“I read the books, hopefully the students read the books, and then somewhere between us we have a conversation about what the books mean,” Keyes said.

She went on to say that sometimes a question only prompts a short answer, if they even go anywhere at all.

“When it really works well, I ask a question, which generates a response from somebody on one side of the room, and a different response from the other side of the room, and maybe someone responds to one of them and then we have this cool thing called a discussion,” Keyes explained. “Somewhere in that discussion, we come up with not just one interpretation, but several possible interpretations for what the book means.”

Sometimes these discussions get heated to the point of yelling at each other, like when a Touchstones class argued over the actions of a character.

“It was great,” Keyes said.

In order to have these discussions, the students have to put in a level of work that they often don’t feel like applying.

“You can’t get away with slacking. You have to do the readings, you have to try, but it’s a very rewarding feeling when you do good on a test or a paper,” Emery said. “She’s a very fair professor.”

Emery’s first experience with Professor Keyes was during COVID times, when Keyes would wear a signature face-mask that resembled the face of a cat.

Speaking of cats, Keyes has many of them.

“When we were on Zoom, her cats would come in and walk across her laptop,” Emery said.

Keyes has five cats of her own, and “assorted numbers of foster cats,” that all have their own distinctive personalities, ranging from the one who hunts mice, to the one who demands pats as an entry fee into the house, and the one who only hangs around Keyes.

“She was just super interesting. I had never met anyone like her,” Emery said.

To add to how interesting Keyes is, you have to look at some of the things she does outside of school.

“I found out she has her pilot’s license, which is like – what?” Emery said in awe.

“When I was a little kid I used to dream about jumping out of trees and putting my arms out and flying. It didn’t work real well when I jumped off the roof of the shed,” Keyes said. “I didn’t break anything but I didn’t fly either.”

In her late 20s, one of her friends gave her a gift certificate for a flight at a local airport just so she would shut up about flying.

“I loved it, and I came down and told the guy I wanted to learn to fly, and he was like ‘have you ever flown before?’ and I said ‘no, that was it, can I have a book?’ and I started learning to fly,” Keyes said.

“She’s very well traveled… I’ll be in class with her and she’ll just drop these random tid-bits of information about her life,” Emery said. “I’m convinced she’s done and seen everything in the world.”

Keyes always makes sure she dresses up for Halloween every year, one element of her personality that Professor Andrew Alexander, head of the English department will miss dearly.

“No one can forget Flo’s Halloween costumes. Her grim reaper costume was phenomenal, and the zebra was also quite excellent,” Alexander said.

“I just have chosen not to grow up,” Keyes said. “I started doing it in college, and it was fun.”

Photo from Keyes’ first year at Castleton standing with art professor Jonathan Scott.

Keyes recalled the first year, when she dressed up as a vampire, and a poetry teacher “turned around, looked at me, and said ‘great idea.’” However, another teacher scoffed at it and claimed it was “childish.”

“I started doing it here because it was fun and different, and then people started to expect it, and then people started to ask ‘what are you going to be next year?’ and then people who aren’t even in my classes would come around on Halloween to see what I dressed up as,” she explained.

As much as Keyes likes to have fun, she’s also very serious about her job, which is what students often fail to see past.

“Flo is a no-nonsense, say-what-I-mean-and-mean-what-I-say kind of person. You know where you stand with Flo,” Alexander said. “I’ve always appreciated that forthrightness, and I have especially appreciated the insights that come with it,” he added.

Teaching is a serious job, and it’s also a very demanding job, and Keyes even did the math to calculate how much time a teacher works.

“People say ‘oh they only work 12 hours a week,’ which is hilarious… between grading and prep it’s about a 60-hour-per-week job,” Keyes said. “They say ‘oh you get time off at the end,’ yes I know we get summers off, but if you average it out it comes out about 40 hours a week, and summers are recouping from pushing that hard the previous semester, and then you have to start prepping for the next semester.”

Because of this and other reasons, Keyes has announced that she’s beginning the retirement process after the spring semester of 2024. She’ll move to part-time teaching for the following year before officially retiring.

“Goofing off will be nice, gardening will be nice, but I don’t know that I’m ready to stop working,” she said. “It’s not that I’ve reached a point where I’d like to do some of that other stuff, I don’t like the changes they’ve made in the college, I don’t like the merger, and mostly I don’t like the assumption that the best teaching has to be online,” she added.

Keyes thinks that online teaching only works effectively if it’s done by a teacher who commits themself to that form of teaching.

“Teaching online is not good pedagogy, especially when it’s teaching online because somebody else thinks you should do it, and not because you’ve committed yourself to that as a style of teaching,” Keyes explained. ”I don’t like teaching that way, I don’t wanna have to teach that way. I’m getting out before I have to teach that way.”

When Keyes leaves it’s going to be an “enormous” hit for the English department according to Alexander.

“Flo’s range of expertise is exceptional. [There are] so many classes we can’t offer anymore, ranging from Medieval Lit to Children’s Lit to Dante to American Drama to Creative Writing,” Alexander said.

Keyes’ retirement is also a major hit to the students.

“She’s been my favorite professor since freshman year. I’ve learned the most from her, and I feel the most rewarded by her classes and her teaching style,” Emery said. “I feel sad for the students who couldn’t get past her scariness, and didn’t get to know her as a professor.”

Flo Keyes as ‘biker chick’ on Halloween.

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