April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
Three faculty honored for their 'Excellence in Teaching'
The Excellence in Teaching awards honor a mastery of pedagogy and the individual spark that makes for memorable instruction. This year's recipients, the third group to receive the honor, are Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Frank Pajares, History Professor Patrick Allitt and Associate Professor of English and American Studies Catherine "Kate" Nickerson.
The awards are typically given to one recipient each in the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities and emphasize peer assessment of faculty and student evaluations. Recipients are given a $2,000 prize and a reserved parking space. "We were sorry that there were no nominations from the natural sciences this year, but we were pleased that the nominations in the other divisions were very strong--so strong in the social sciences that the selection committee decided to make two awards here," said English Professor Walt Reed, director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum, which administers the awards.
"There is a tradition of strong teaching at Emory that is being continued by faculty hired in recent years as well," he added. "The public recognition of this tradition is important to the future of the college."
Social Sciences awardee Pajares said learning is the most effective tool he has for good teaching. "No doubt that every year your students teach you how to be a better teacher-if you work hard to learn the lessons they're trying to teach you," he said, with a chuckle. "They're all rooting for you because they want better teaching." But he doesn't leave their "instruction" to chance-every semester Pajares hands out student evaluations midway through their course work. "It helps, in a sense, guide the rest of the course and tells me what they need," he explained.
In a division known for its strong teachers, Pajares stands out, said Jeffrey Mirel, educational studies director. His classes are "intense and lively interchanges in which he uses a vast range of philosophical, literary and popular examples," Mirel added.
"I rediscover a course every semester, even if I've taught it many times before," Pajares conceded. "My efforts are geared toward making sure that the students find relevance and importance in the material we're discovering together.
Allitt said it looks comical from the start-a native of Great Britain teaching American history. "I think I've been able to profit from that," he joked. More likely it's his efforts to place history into perspective for his students. "It's real people making real decisions about their lives," he said, "people who were not at all certain about how their choices would turn out."
Allitt's "captivating" lecture style hooks students, said his colleagues. "Undergraduates note that his lively anecdotes and sense of humor are not merely window dressing but help them retain important information," wrote Chair Walter Adamson in his nomination letter, quoting the 1993 department letter recommending Allitt for tenure.
Another tool Allitt uses is assigning autobiographies for students to read. Books such as Adele Robertson's The Orchard or Ann Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi bring the Great Depression and the civil rights era alive, he said. "It affects them more once they start getting into someone else's frame of mind."
Nickerson, who's on sabbatical this semester, passed muster for tenure in two departments last year. "The full, tenured faculty in each department voted unanimously to rate her as an unqualified 'excellent' in teaching," said ILA director Robert Paul in his nomination letter. Her portfolio, Paul added, is a "record of devotion to good teaching from beginning to end ... Nickerson emerges as a dedicated, conscientious, concerned and enormously successful teacher."
"I try to set up structures where students can discover things they didn't expect to," Nickerson said of her teaching style. "And that often surprises them-and me."
When she returns from sabbatical in the fall, Nickerson will be teaching two freshman seminars, a prospect that pleases her. "I love teaching freshmen," she said. "They are so excited about learning and so proud of themselves for being at Emory," she explained. "At that moment they are like a combustible liquid. You can really light their fires in that first year."