Meghan Murphy-Lee is not just your average teacher. Along with teaching Russian, she also teaches another course that might come as a surprise. Murphy-Lee simply calls it “Vampire Class.”
“I thought it would be an interesting class for the students, but also something that’s interesting to teach,” said Murphy-Lee about her vampire class.
This vampire class is more technically known as Vampires: From Slavic Village to Hollywood and is part of the Foreign Languages and Literature department at UWM. The course consists of an examination of the vampire in Slavic and Eastern European folkloric tradition through films, legends, chronicles, and common novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Murphy-Lee is currently teaching first and second-semester Russian, the Vampire course, Russian and Slavic folklore, and, next fall, she will be teaching a one credit course on shape shifters and Eastern European folklore. She has a BA in International studies from Illinois Wesleyan University, a MA in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Arizona, and a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Kansas. She started as a teaching assistant in 1994 and has been teaching for a full 21 years ever since.
Teaching, for Murphy-Lee, is not as easy as it could be. One life obstacle that has been thrown at her is her poor vision. She has dead spots and blind spots all over her retinas. Murphy-Lee suffered severe damage to her retinas while in grad school as a side effect from the medicine she was taking for her systemic lupus.
Originally from the northwest suburbs of Chicago and of Slavic decent, Murphy-Lee started her journey as an educator at the University of Arizona, where she was a graduate student. Her first class was as the teaching assistant for a beginning Russian language course to help fund her schooling. Murphy-Lee also taught an introduction to Slavic folklore class as well when she was a graduate student at the University of Kansas.
Murphy-Lee first became interested in folklore at the University of Kansas while she taught the introduction to Slavic folklore class. After she graduated, she went back to the University of Arizona as a visiting assistant professor in a vampire and werewolf class. Murphy-Lee ended up teaching this class during her last semester at the university. As she began to teach the class, she morphed it from a literature class into a Slavic folklore class about the beliefs of vampires and werewolves. She also taught this class at Bates College one semester. When she arrived to UWM, she pared it down to be about just vampires. This is now her third year teaching the class at UWM and fourth year at UWM overall.
Vampires have been popular in today’s culture through movies and TV shows like The Twilight Saga and The Vampire Diaries.
“I think it’s important for people to understand the beliefs and foundations of a culture to understand it,” said Murphy-Lee. “I thought that vampires are really popular nowadays, and there’s a lot of Slavic literature and folktales about vampires that I could use.”
Teaching doesn’t come all too easy to Murphy-Lee, though. With her eyesight being heavily damaged due to medicines she took for her systemic lupus, things can get difficult.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease where the immune system turns against different parts of the body that it’s designed to protect. This can lead to inflammation that affects many parts of the body. Systemic lupus is the most common form of lupus and is generally considered more serious than the other forms. This form of lupus can affect many parts of a person’s body, including kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood, and skin. Symptoms tend to vary among patients and can change often and suddenly.
Murphy-Lee’s official diagnosis for her eyes is “low vision.” She says it is similar to Stargardt Syndrome, or Macular Degeneration.
Teaching can get tough for Murphy-Lee when it comes to her vision. One person she relies on is Sam Dorios, her teaching assistant in her vampire class. Technically, the vampire class is not big enough for the department to have a teaching assistant, so Dorios is more of an accommodation. He takes attendance, keeps track of students, makes sure students are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and helps Murphy-Lee when students raise their hands during class, as she usually cannot see them.
“It would be tough for me to do it without him (Dorios),” said Murphy-Lee.
Dorios, a graduate student in the Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding program, first met Murphy-Lee when his professor recommended him for the teaching assistant job.
“Working with Meghan is a pleasure,” said Dorios. “Her eyesight is very poor, but she is resourceful and hardworking, so it actually doesn’t hold her back too much. That said, she obviously can’t do some tasks, which is where I come in.”
Having worked with her for a while, Dorios says he’s become intuitive to her needs and can take initiative in his tasks. Working with her for this time has also helped him learn quite a lot about not only vampires but also many other things.
“I learned that people with disabilities are more capable than they appear. Yes, they need help and cannot do certain things, but people are intelligent and resourceful,” said Dorios. “They can come up with some clever solutions, or use their other senses and abilities in creative ways to compensate.”
Despite her vision, Murphy-Lee comes to class every day prepared to make students smile and learn more about not only vampires and Slavic folklore and literature but also about themselves and others.
“One of Meghan’s best qualities is her heart. She is admittedly eccentric but owns it in a way that keeps students engaged,” said Dorios. “And she likes to have students engaged because she genuinely cares about their academic and personal development.”