Lenfest Winners Excel in Classroom and Out

Special from The Record

Feb. 19, 2010Bookmark and Share
The 2010 Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award winners (Image credit: Nicoletta Barolini)

Being a great teacher requires humor, enthusiasm, insatiable curiosity and intense preparation.

So say some of the winners of this year’s Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards, which are given annually to a handful of professors for their teaching skills and their strength in mentoring students. The awards were established by University trustee Gerry Lenfest (LAW’58, HON’09) in 2005, as a way to make sure faculty members are recognized and rewarded for attributes beyond their scholarship and research.

This year’s seven winning faculty members come from disciplines ranging from biological sciences to Germanic languages and were honored at a dinner at Faculty House Feb. 16.

Each will receive a stipend of $25,000 per year for three consecutive years. Their teaching styles are as varied as their specialties, but all agree on two basic points: Keep it interesting and keep it comprehensible.

Exploring the unknown is still the best part of teaching, says Stefan Andriopoulos, associate professor of Germanic languages and literature. “The traditional format of lecturing as an expert about material that you have mastered has its merits when it comes to building a foundation on which you and your students can start asking serious questions,” he says. “But it is when you venture into new territory that teaching becomes a truly productive experience.”

His research focuses on German and European literary, intellectual and cultural history from the 18th to the 20th centuries, specifically on media history, and the interrelations of literature and science. As the director of his department’s undergraduate studies, Andriopoulos is credited with increasing the number of majors in Germanic languages, and is currently pushing for the development of a Ph.D. program in film and comparative media. He said he’s “pleased that Columbia acknowledges the mentoring and research that happens in foreign language departments.”

Genome specialist Harmen Bussemaker, associate professor of biological sciences, makes sure his lectures don’t skim over essential steps.

“Science is all about a delicate form of self-confidence, a level of conceptual and technical preparation that gives you the freedom to venture into unexplored areas,” he said. “Sharing these nuggets of insight with the students hopefully provides them with a growing feeling of power over the subject.”

Bussemaker’s work with DNA coding could one day shed light on whether genetic differences dictate how an individual will react to a specific drug or medical treatment, or even if that person might develop a certain disease.

Gerry Lenfest, with wife Marguerite, at the Feb. 16 awards ceremony, holds up a gift from some of this year’s recipients. (Image credit: David Wentworth/Columbia University)
Gerry Lenfest, with wife Marguerite, at the Feb. 16 awards ceremony, holds up a gift from some of this year’s recipients.
Image credit: David Wentworth / Columbia University

For Julie Crawford, associate professor of English and comparative literature, teaching is about immersion. “I offer the students the most information about the text or idea we are discussing as I possibly can,” she said, “and convey to them as vividly, specifically and clearly as possible its meanings, innovations, significance and continuing relevance.”

Crawford, who specializes in religious history, popular culture and political thought written by and about women, is known for her enthusiastic classroom style. The key, she stresses, is respect for the student. “This means taking them seriously as intellectuals and fellow inquirers, helping them to discover a wide range of skills and tools, and pushing them beyond passivity, quiescence, easy answers and emulation.”

Humor, wit and the Socratic method: That is Lydia Goehr’s teaching approach. A longtime professor of the philosophy of history and the arts, and of critical theory, Goehr tries “to get a good take on what I think the students want to learn, and balance that with what I think they need to learn,” she said. She also wants to make sure what she is teaching has real-world significance. “I’m terribly concerned that philosophical arguments come to life and show how relevant they are,” she added. “I don’t tend to teach arguments abstractly.”

Ruben Gonzalez, assistant professor of chemistry, says he constantly develops and tweaks various concepts or ideas to teach the same subject from different perspectives.

“I strive to achieve this by using a combination of humor, analogies to real-world situations and images connecting fundamental chemical principles to common concepts,” said Gonzalez, who studies the mechanism of protein synthesis by the ribosome. “I take great pains to ensure that I deliver clear and lively lectures, and these approaches allow me to draw a broad range of students.”

Steven Goldstein is also a fan of connecting classroom teaching to current affairs. “If something happens in the greater world that’s relevant to the course, bring it in immediately,” said the professor of earth and environmental sciences. Just last month, he and co-teacher Sidney Hemming modified one of their scheduled presentations on earthquakes to focus on Haiti.

For Goldstein, witnessing a student’s “epiphany” is one of the joys of teaching. “In the Solid Earth System [course], for example, we tell our students that this class will change, forever, the way they look at our earth, or rocks for that matter,” he said. Several years ago, a student returned from spring break after visiting her family near Amman, Jordan. “She told us how awesomely different her appreciation was of the surroundings.”

For anthropology professor David Scott, teaching involves getting his students interested in the thinking process, sharing their ideas and developing what he calls “an appetite for questioning.” He “thinks out loud” with them, and encourages them to “not be afraid of sounding foolish.” He particularly enjoys the dialogue with his students: “It enables you to inhabit a bubble in which you can hear yourself think with others.”

—by Melanie A. Farmer

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