Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award Winners Reflect on What Makes Great Teachers
Great teachers are always learning, from their peers, students, teaching assistants and families. Just ask the 10 winners of this year’s Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards.
“I worked as a teaching assistant for a professor who, after 30 years of teaching, spent hours to prepare for every single class,” said Music Professor Giuseppe Gerbino. “He taught generations of students that teaching is a lifelong learning process.”
Political Science Professor Melissa Schwartzberg learned from one of her teaching assistants, Kevin Elliott, “who persuaded me to be more creative in my pedagogy” and incorporate a mock constitutional assembly in her Problems in Democratic Theory class.
Don J. Melnick, professor of ecology, evolution and environmental biology, as well as anthropology and biological sciences, found inspiration in his family.
“My grandmother and great aunts and uncles came to this country at the turn of the last century. They had amazing stories, all of them captivating,” he said. “My parents instilled in us a thirst for knowledge and a desire to learn as much as we could about the things that interested us. The thirst for knowledge we were given, the commitment to education we were indoctrinated into, and the telling and retelling of stories throughout our childhood were the greatest influences on my teaching.”
These three professors, and seven others, will be honored this month for outstanding scholarship, teaching and service. Some have been at Columbia for decades; others joined the faculty as recently as 2006.
The awards were established in 2005 with a $12 million gift from University Trustee Gerry Lenfest (’58 LAW, ’09 HON) and carry a $25,000 stipend for each of three years. The ceremony will take place Feb. 27 at the Italian Academy.
Here is a look at this year’s winners, and some of their views on what makes a great teacher:
Frances A. Champagne, associate professor of psychology, is a pioneer in the field of behavioral epigenetics, the branch of molecular biology that probes the impact of the environment on the expression of genes. Since coming to Columbia in 2006, she started a lecture course called “The Developing Brain” and established a multidisciplinary research training group that explores the origins and inheritance of behavior. She also teaches a course in the neurobiology of reproductive behavior. “There are many approaches to being a good teacher but a common theme is a feeling of enthusiasm for what you are teaching and a feeling of satisfaction at being able to communicate that excitement to the students,” she said.
Jean Cohen, the Nell and Herbert Singer Professor of Political Thought and Contemporary Civilization, has been at Columbia for nearly 30 years. She has organized six international political science conferences and had visiting professorships around the world. Her current research involves the revival of “political religion” across the globe and the risks it poses for democracy, constitutionalism, human rights and gender justice. “A good teacher is someone who can present a coherent class lecture, who cares about the topic, who is open to discussion and debate and different points of view, is not authoritarian or dogmatic but willing also to learn from students while being rigorous and demanding. The point is not to be ‘relevant’ but to be excellent,” she said, adding that her teaching style was partly influenced by different teaching methods she observed in the U.S. and abroad. While it varies with the size and level of the class, she is always open to students’ questions.
Giuseppe Gerbino, associate professor of music and chair of the Music Department, is an authority on Italian Renaissance music. He has explored the relationship between music and language and the concepts of perception and cognition in the early modern period. “Teaching is not a simple transfer of knowledge but an act of sharing,” he said. “For me, it is important to communicate to students how deeply a book or a musical work has changed me over the years. Sharing this experience is one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do as teachers.” And, he added, “A little bit of humor also goes a long way.” His book Music and Myth of Arcadia in Renaissance Italy, published by Cambridge University Press, received the 2010 Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society.
Don J. Melnick is the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. He created the blueprint for the department known informally as E3B, which has grown in faculty size, student enrollments and degree candidates since it was established in 2001. He developed a bio-anthropology sub-specialty that is now a standalone major and was one of the first to teach Frontiers of Science, a Core Curriculum science course.
His research has taken him all over the world, from the mountains of the Himalayas to the jungles of Sumatra. “I have had to explain what I do to many different types of people, in different cultures, in different languages, and this has helped me immensely in my teaching,” he said. He sees every lecture as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. “I have found this to be the best way to draw students into a lecture or a course—take them on a journey from a place they know to one never dreamed of before.”
Rosalind C. Morris, professor of anthropology, works across a variety of disciplines besides her own specialty, including literature, philosophy and media studies. For the last 15 years she has been doing ethnography research in South Africa’s gold mining region, and thinking about how people learn to change. “Students must learn to assume the burden of critical thought, for there is no hope for the future without the commitment and the capacity to remedy what ails the present,” she said. When she teaches the core ethnography course for undergraduate anthropology majors, students read fiction, drama, journalism, history and social theory. “I aim to help students understand how knowledge is shaped by the discourses and the aesthetic traditions within which they are framed,” she said. “My objective is to help students to learn on their own.”
Gerard Parkin, professor of chemistry, says he tries to present material with enthusiasm—and sometimes humor. “It is most important to engage the students, ask them questions and make them think about what is being discussed,” he said. Students in his general chemistry classes use handheld clickers during lectures to give him feedback in real time, which he said helps him determine if they understand the materials. He also often corrects what he called “significant conceptual errors” in textbooks, which, he said, “instills in the students the notion that they need to be critical of what they read.” Parkin joined the Columbia faculty in 1988 and in 2008 received the University President’s Award for Outstanding Teaching. He also is a recent recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, presented at the White House.
Caterina Pizzigoni, an associate professor of Latin American history, arrived at Columbia in 2006. “I think of teaching as an interaction with the students,” she said. “I try to involve them first of all through images and primary sources we can work on together in class and through questions, in a seminar but also in a lecture format.” An expert on the indigenous people of central Mexico during the colonial period, her work reconstructs and analyzes their society and culture using documents in their native language, Nahuatl, as well as sources in Spanish. “Reading between the lines and the passion to discover anything about the individuals behind these documents have informed my teaching,” she said. Pizzigoni says the students at Columbia “inspire me every day, even when I think I am too tired to step into the classroom.” In 2008 she won the Columbia Mentoring Initiative Award, which recognizes faculty who mentor first-year students.
Ovidiu Savin, professor of mathematics, enjoys “explaining mathematics to students of all levels, interacting with them, stimulating them and helping them to gain confidence in their math abilities.” His research involves partial differential equations, which appear in all areas of mathematics and science. “They are relevant, for example, in traffic network planning in cities, Internet traffic optimization and fluid dynamics,” he said. “This gives me the opportunity to provide my students with concrete examples of applications of math.” Besides the courses he teaches, Savin prepares students for the Putnam Competition, an annual undergraduate math contest. The top scorer in the 1997 competition when he was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he has helped make the Columbia team among the perennial favorites. Last year, the Italian Mathematical Union awarded him the Stampacchia Gold Medal, an international prize that is considered one of the highest honors in mathematics.
Melissa Schwartzberg, associate professor of political science, is a political theorist whose research centers on the history of democratic institutions and the rules for and consequences of democratic decision making. “One of the most rewarding elements of teaching undergraduates in particular is the opportunity to help them critically assess institutions they know quite well—the use of elections, the secret ballot, majority rule etc.,” she said. When teaching the history of political thought, she said she emphasizes arguments that might question students’ assumptions and tries to make a case for them. “I dislike lecturing and tend to turn even my lecture courses into seminars.” Schwartzberg teaches the Contemporary Civilization course in the Core Curriculum, as well as other undergraduate and graduate level courses. A part-time scholar of ancient Greek institutions, she is also an associate member of the Department of Classics.
Joseph Slaughter, associate professor of English and comparative literature, teaches African, Latin American and Caribbean literatures, postcolonial and narrative theory, and human rights. Since many of the texts he teaches aren’t familiar to the students, he said, he emphasizes the importance of cultural and historical context in all literature. “Ideally, being literate means also being aware of the ways in which reading is inflected by larger socio-historical and cultural dynamics,” he said. “I try to be attentive to the class dynamics, to the disparities in student preparation, and to learn from the students the ways in which we can best learn together.” His teaching style depends on the size of the class and the topic, he said. “One of the shared qualities between a good teacher and a good student is being humble about what one knows—never being overly confident that one’s knowledge is correct or represents the only or best answer to any question or problem.” His first book, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, won the René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association in 2008.
—by Georgette Jasen
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