Lenfest Awards: 9 Faculty in Arts and Sciences Honored for Exceptional Teaching

Great teachers engage, challenge, inspire and empower their students. And they draw inspiration from the teachers who taught them. So say the nine winners of this year’s Distinguished Columbia Faculty Awards, who won for their teaching and mentoring skills.

February 21, 2012

The honor, established in 2005 by University trustee Gerry Lenfest (LAW’58, HON’09), is given annually to recognize and reward faculty members for attributes beyond their scholarship and research. This year’s winners will receive a stipend of $25,000 per year for three consecutive years, and will be honored at a dinner at the Italian Academy on March 1.

They come from disciplines ranging from chemistry to art history, but they are united in their shared commitment to instruction, with many crediting their own academic success to a particularly inspiring mentor.

Daphna Shohamy, assistant professor of psychology, recalls how she was “completely hooked” as a freshman at Tel Aviv University after a few classes with a professor, Matti Mintz, who taught a course similar to Columbia’s “Mind, Brain and Behavior.” The professor had a special gift for asking intriguing questions and engaging the students,” she says. “It was an important experience that got me interested in neuroscience research and started me down the path that led to where I am today.” Which, as it happens, is teaching “Mind, Brain and Behavior.”

Mark Mazower, Ira D. Wallach Professor of World Order Studies and chair of the History Department, had a similar experience with John Campbell, his doctoral supervisor at Oxford. “He was a deeply humane and inspiring man who believed in allowing his students to find their own way,” says Mazower. “We spent supervisions mostly talking about things other than my dissertation, and I learned a lot from him about treating one’s students as equals.”

The honorees also share a belief that their jobs involve more than simply lecturing in their areas of scholarship. For Robert Y. Shapiro, professor of political science, “being a good teacher means engaging students and giving them knowledge and skills they can use beyond the courses they take with me, and also the confidence and interest in using and developing these skills further.”

That conviction is echoed by one of his political science colleagues, Fredrick C. Harris, who also strives to help students think critically. “I am not interested in directing students to a particular worldview, but I hope they find or strengthen their own commitments,” says Harris, who directs the Center on African-American Politics and Society. “They must defend perspectives through understanding the texts before them.”

Still, they must be able to appreciate ideas and experiences different from their own, a capacity that Holger A. Klein, professor of art history and archaeology, tries to nurture in his students. “To have an opportunity to open students’ eyes and minds to the world around them, to help them to critically evaluate the past and empower them to use their senses to uncover the beauty and meaning of works of art, is for me one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher,” he says.

For Emmanuelle Saada, associate professor in French and Romance philology, the qualities of a good teacher are best expressed by the French philosopher Descartes’ idea of generosity—the recognition “in one’s self and in others of the ability to understand the world and the will to make it a better place.”

“‘Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed’—the first lines of the 'Discourse on Method' are a powerful pedagogical manifesto,” says Saada. “Descartes was distilling the democratic potential of education—the belief that everybody can do it. This belief was formative to me during my own education and I hope that I convey this sense of freedom and empowerment to my students.”

Good teachers also hope to instill in their students a desire to address unsolved problems. This may be especially true in the sciences, where Laura J. Kaufman, associate professor of chemistry, often finds herself focusing on modern research.

“Certainly one of the big challenges is keeping people interested—trying to make sure that everyone understands that even though we’ve got these textbooks that could have been written 50 years ago, this is indeed a live science,” she said.

To keep her students engaged, Kaufman might work in a reference to the chemistry of food, such as whether salt makes water boil faster. Frances Negron-Muntaner, associate professor of English and comparative literature, also tries to make her instruction relevant in an era when students might just as soon go on the Web to find information as go to class.

“After nearly a decade of teaching, I have come to believe that the teacher’s fundamental role is to free the student to learn by him or herself,” said Negron-Muntaner, who is also director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. “I believe that each and every one of the people that I interact with in the classroom already knows things, things that I will never know. And therefore they will learn the most not from writing down what I say, but from being inspired to learn what they want.”

What emerges from listening to great teachers talk about their pedagogy is how much they enjoy and profit from the experience.

“The most breathtaking part for me is when students get excited about what they’re doing or moved by what they’re reading or stunned by how beautiful something is or floored by what something they’re studying suggests about how they might live,” says Cathy L. Popkin, the Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities and a professor of Slavic languages.

Although the Lenfest awards celebrate all that teachers do right, Saada admits her own style of teaching was formed in part in reaction to her teachers in France, who “lectured constantly, never engaged in conversations with the students and rarely praised them.”

“My students can perhaps be thankful that I have learned from my American colleagues and students on how to teach: They have been my teachers,” she said.