Honoring Great Teachers

May/June 2002

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When Harry Elam's book on playwright August Wilson is published next spring, the acknowledgements will include an unusual group. There, among thank-yous to his editors and family and colleagues, the drama professor expects to recognize the members of a seminar—including several undergraduates—whose discussions prompted him to alter a chapter.

The group examined Wilson’s 1988 Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “I thought the representation of women was not as full as it could have been,” Elam says. “We looked and charted and thought about. The perceptions the students brought to the text changed my opinions: saying Wilson didn’t create strong women characters was too simplistic.”

In that moment, undergraduate students gave back to Elam some of what he has given them over the years, as a teacher in Sophomore College (Stanford’s two-week intensive program just before the start of fall quarter) and as the inaugural director of the Introduction to the Humanities program, from 1997 to 2000. Elam “always asks for our feedback,” says senior Misty Espinoza, who has taken two courses with Elam and served as a course assistant. “He says, ‘I’m not a student—this isn’t something I know. What do you guys think?’”

Now, the University is recognizing Elam and other faculty members who have been especially dedicated to teaching young students through a new designation announced in January—University Fellow in Undergraduate Education. Eight professors were appointed fellows in January, and administrators expect to name as many as 40 over the next five years. The new program furthers the goals of Stanford’s $1 billion Campaign for Undergraduate Education, which seeks in part to endow the recent curriculum innovations that comprise Stanford Introductory Studies.

For professors, the honor is mostly just that. It comes with a modest stipend, but several of those chosen say they take pleasure simply in the accolade. “What it says is the University appreciates the work you have done, most particularly the work in terms of undergraduates,” Elam says.

That work might include teaching an introductory seminar, involving undergraduates in research or serving as an adviser. Or all of the above, in the case of University fellow Pat Jones, a professor of biological sciences and vice provost for faculty development. Jones says there are three keys to engaging undergraduates: present subject matter that will interest them, communicate your excitement about the field and convey why the material is important. Of her seminar on infection and immunity, she says: “One of my goals is to challenge them to think and to be synthetic in their learning—not just to memorize material and spit it back, but to combine material they use in one context and apply it to another context.”

The University fellows program allows administrators to recognize faculty from schools that grant only graduate degrees, but who have nonetheless made contributions to undergraduate education. One of the initial appointees, John Boothroyd, is a professor of microbiology and immunology in the Medical School who teaches a freshman seminar on modern plagues and who mentors undergraduate researchers in his lab.

In addition to Boothroyd, Elam and Jones, the new University fellows include Thomas Byers, an associate teaching professor of management science and engineering who introduces students to entrepreneurship through the Mayfield fellows program; Terry Karl, ’70, MA ’76, PhD ’82, a professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies who involves students in Latin American scholarship; David Kennedy, ’63, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor who teaches Introduction to the Humanities courses; Douglas Osheroff, a Nobel laureate who teaches introductory physics courses and a seminar on photography; and Eric Roberts, a computer science teaching professor who has created an internationally recognized undergraduate program in computer science.

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