Society of Columbia Graduates Selects Two for the Great Teachers Award
Professor Cathy Popkin discovered Russian literature in the 1970s. Bored with her data entry job, she went shopping for books—the fatter the better—to keep herself entertained at work. What she found was Dostoevsky. Popkin, who also studied French and German as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford in comparative literature, specializing in 19th and 20th century Russian literature.
Now the Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Slavic Languages, Popkin was honored this fall for her passion for teaching, along with David Yao, professor of industrial engineering and operations research at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Both received the Annual Great Teachers Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates at an Oct. 24 ceremony and dinner.
“I haven’t thought about doing anything other than teaching,” said Yao. “And if I had to do it over again, I would still teach. Year after year, I have contact with such a talented group of young people, and I’m still amazed when new questions pop up that I’ve never thought of before.”
The century-old society established the Great Teachers Award in 1949 to honor faculty of the college and of the engineering school who challenge and inspire undergraduate students. Administrators from each school nominate a handful of professors for the award, and the society’s members review the candidates and select one winner from each school. “These teachers demonstrate strong abilities to communicate, teach and lead discussions that make students think,” said Gerald Sherwin (CC’55), vice president of the society.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Popkin stood before her “Literature and Empire: The Reign of the Novel in Russia” class, clutching her dogeared copy of Nikolai Gogol’s "Dead Souls." Her 35 students, eager to participate, crowded the Hamilton Hall classroom’s front rows, their attention rapt for 75 minutes. “I’m so lucky. This is a pretty amazing job,” said Popkin, who won the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award earlier this year. “I’m not sure I could do anything better.”
Popkin has taught “Literature Humanities,” a hallmark of the core curriculum, since arriving at Columbia in 1986. During the students’ senior year, she hosts popular “Lit Hum” class reunions, often inviting students to come as their favorite literary characters. Everyone from the gruesome creatures of Dante’s "Inferno" to "Pride and Prejudice’s" Bingley sisters have turned out.
Yao, who designed Columbia’s financial engineering master’s program in the 1990s, teaches the old-fashioned way—with chalk and a board. “I’m almost like a dinosaur,” he joked. At the start of his “Introduction to Financial Engineering” class last month, Yao warned his students, “Today is probably the heaviest math day. Don’t be intimidated. Be bold. Be careful.” He was teaching Ito’s calculus, a basic tool for financial engineering.
Yao earned his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1983 and began teaching at Columbia the same year. He became a full professor in 1988, after teaching two years at Harvard. Yao’s research interests focus on the analysis, design and control of stochastic systems—random systems that do not follow a pattern, such as manufacturing systems, supply chains and communication networks. He holds six U.S. patents in manufacturing operations and supply chain logistics.
“A good teacher does more than convey knowledge or facts,” said Yao, who spends his daily drive home thinking about how he can do his job better. “What’s more valuable is how students approach a problem. The challenge is getting them to ask the right questions.”