The Goergen Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching recognize the distinctive teaching accomplishments and skills of faculty in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. Presented each year since 1997, the awards were established by trustee Robert Goergen ’60 and his wife, Pamela, to recognize, reward, and encourage strong and innovative undergraduate teaching.
“The Goergen Awards have really driven a University-wide discussion about the importance of teaching,” says Andrew Berger, a professor of optics and a recipient of the award in 2007.
As the College Class of 2011 leaves Rochester’s classrooms, meet a few of the recent winners who have inspired them.
It was love of the outdoors that first drew Carmala Garzione, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, to her field of sedimentology and tectonics—but more abstract attractions have provided its enduring appeal.
“Many geologists will tell you the ability to spend time outside is a big draw,” she says, “and for me, early on, it was. But I also really like the big questions I ask in my research. What does the elevation history of mountains tell us about how they grew? How have mountains altered Earth’s climate over time? What are the larger-scale tectonic processes at play in convergent tectonic settings?”
When Garzione teaches her undergraduate courses—Introduction to Geological Sciences and Sedimentology and Stratigraphy—she leads her students to the terrain of those large questions, but she never loses sight of their own grasp of the material.
“I think that’s what’s really important about teaching—you can’t teach in the same mode for all levels,” she says. “You have to understand where the students are in their understanding. You really need to develop a dialogue that’s consistent with their level.”
And dialogue is fundamental to Garzione’s courses, even when she’s lecturing. She aims never to convey facts and concepts alone, but to guide students to comprehend the thought processes behind them.
“It’s a really active approach to learning,” she says, and she works toward solutions to problems in class rather than laying out information.
“I love to use chalk and overheads—which I know seems old-fashioned. But it allows me to write student feedback on the median. PowerPoint just isn’t as dynamic.”
Garzione teaches her introductory lab course as a workshop, breaking students into teams with a peer leader—a fellow student who’s taken the course before and performed well—who helps guide the team by asking questions.
“The ideas in this course are more challenging than what they’d encounter in a typical lab, where the problems often have single-response answers,” Garzione says.
She often includes undergraduates in her fieldwork teams in places such as Bolivia and Tibet, determining the age of rocks, collecting chemical information, and interpreting their depositional environment in a quest to unlock mountains’ secrets about their growth mechanisms and the paleoclimate of the region.
“They usually do a lot of grunt work, but that’s what we all do in the field as geologists.”
Back in the classroom, she relies on a whittled down approach. “Initially I tried to put everything in my classes. But over time I’ve realized it’s not the volume of information but the thought process that gives students an intellectual edge.”
G. Bingham Powell
G. Bingham Powell, the Marie C. Wilson and Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Political Science, is an avid observer and analyst of political systems—with a particular taste for tensions and disputes and the divergent paths they can take.
And teaching, he says, is a way to impart his curiosity to others.
“I was drawn to political science by my interest in conflict,” Powell explains. “Teaching is a chance to share my interest in and enthusiasm for political science.”
As incoming president in 2011–12 of the American Political Science Association and a highly regarded expert on comparative politics and European politics, Powell nonetheless works day to day with Rochester students just dipping their toes into the field with the course Introduction to Comparative Politics.
“It’s an opportunity to argue to them that there are a lot of ways to run a political system—the way we do it isn’t the only one,” he says.
Coauthor and coeditor of a leading undergraduate comparative politics text, Comparative Politics Today, Powell aims to give the course a narrow focus, such as how citizens use elections to influence politics, while familiarizing students with basic political science theories and concepts.
“I’ve found, historically, that if I try to do everything, it satisfies nobody. The course becomes a welter of unconnected facts and concepts.”
In his upper-division undergraduate courses, Powell focuses on how democracies work and how conflict functions within them.
“Disagreement in politics is everywhere,” he says. “Sometimes the disagreements are expressed through institutions. And sometimes things boil over.”
He tends to concentrate these courses on a handful of countries. “When I’m feeling brave, which is most of the time, I let the students choose one of the countries. Sometimes it’s one I know well, and sometimes not. Then I have to go to the books.”
That plunge into new information—studying the development of democracy in South Africa, for instance, or the political workings of India—are “fascinating. They pull me out of my comfort zone, which is European democracies.”
Even in large courses, Powell aims to foster dialogue with students. “Political science is in some ways straightforward,” he says, “but it’s more subtle in its concepts than students often realize. Discussions can help them make their way through that.”
“In so far as there’s a common denominator” in what appeals to him about teaching, “it’s sharing something you care about,” he says.
“It’s always seemed to me that politics is intrinsically interesting. And most of the students find it so, too.”
The courses taught by Susan Gustafson, the Karl F. and Bertha A. Fuchs Professor in German, are full of magical and mysterious things: monsters, wizards, aliens, and ghosts. But the true enchantment, she says, lies in the love of learning.
“The very best learning is ultimately the result of a magical, personal excitement about something on the part of the students,” she says.
Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures and a specialist in 18th- to 20th-century German literature, Gustafson uses students’ own curiosity as the fuel that drives her courses.
“I want students to own the class, to follow their inspirations,” she says. In service of that goal, she never assigns paper topics, asking students instead to develop projects of their own conception.
“They follow what they’re passionate about. That’s what we do as scholars.”
Gustafson teaches courses on German literature and culture, comparative literature, and women’s studies. As she guides students through works by Edgar Allan Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and others, she trains them in the scholarly practice of close reading, helping students attune themselves to the significance of the smallest textual details.
“I like to look at minute changes and structural shifts in a text,” she says, asking students to consider where a particular passage leads its reader. And she emphasizes the importance of rereading and rewriting—the process of scholarship.
“At the beginning of my career, I was much more lecture-oriented,” she says. “And I didn’t let students rewrite their essays. But over the years I’ve seen what’s more successful. Unless students are actively engaged in analyzing texts, they’re just wondering, ‘How did you see that?’”
Gustafson’s department is a multidisciplinary one, and her own courses—often informed by theories from other fields, such as gender studies, psychology, and film studies—draw a wide variety of students.
Gustafson credits her students and her own former teachers for her success in teaching, and places her interactions with students at the top of her professional responsibilities.
“Teaching is why we’re here.”
When Andrew Berger got his first taste of teaching—as a volunteer tutor in the New Haven, Conn., public schools—he was hooked. As a graduate student, he sought out teaching opportunities in a program that didn’t require them.
Now, as an associate professor of optics, Berger helps students to navigate their way through electromagnetic theory and to tackle advanced lab courses devoted to building lasers and studying how to manipulate light.
“I’m always energized by the thought of how I can reach students, how I can help them wrestle with this material,” he says.
Advisor to alternate-year incoming optics freshmen and chair of the Institute of Optics undergraduate committee, Berger is captivated by the college experience.
“Everyone’s transformative process is fascinating,” he says. “How do you guide people to what’s best for them” as they consider possible fields to pursue?
A specialist in biomedical optics, particularly spectroscopic diagnostic techniques, Berger admits to being an actor on the side. And in the optics classroom, his emphasis is on pulling back the curtain so that students can look carefully at what’s happening “backstage.”
“In optics, the challenge of teaching to undergraduates is not to be too abstract—to put your energy not into presenting a seamless train of thought but into chopping it up,” he says. So he uses peer-led workshops, and in lectures checks in with students frequently, using questions, hypothetical scenarios, and other techniques to engage them.
“If the students don’t understand most of the content of what’s discussed, you’ve wasted very precious time in the classroom.”
Berger thinks of himself as the students’ guide in working with difficult material, always explaining explicitly what he’s trying to teach them and keeping their questions at the forefront of the course. The biggest challenge, he says, is building in the time to listen during class.
“As long as I’m prepared, I love being up in front of people. I’m as happy as the next guy to hear myself talk,” he says.
“But I try to fight that temptation. I strive to talk as little as I can.”
For James Farrar, a professor of chemistry, it’s all about clarity.
“When I can explain something clearly to a student, I understand it better,” he says. “As a teacher, I’m also a learner.”
Teaching freshman chemistry—a large lecture course, with only a small fraction of students who go on to become chemistry majors—has given Farrar much occasion to think about how to make an often difficult subject clear, comprehensible, and even fun.
He models himself on favorite teachers he himself had. “My teaching style comes from taking things I admired in them. They were very good at connecting words and equations. They wrote good explanations. And they had a sense of humor.”
Farrar tries to put a “more human face” on science by sharing jokes and stories about eminent chemists, figures who’d otherwise just be names in textbooks for the students.
“The freshmen come in with boundless enthusiasm,” he says. “They’re interested in everything.” And whether they become majors or not, “the way of thinking about science, and logical thinking about science, will be part of their lives.”
To help students master that thinking, he uses peer-led workshops—crediting the late chemistry professor Jack Kampmeier with inspiring him to bring that method into play. He relies on them, too, in his physical chemistry and other upper-division courses.
“I learned I could improve my teaching through workshops, and for that I’m grateful to the culture of this department,” he says. “Workshops are an arena where people have to make their thinking visible to others. And that’s where the real learning gets done—explaining and defending your thinking to other people.”
Farrar’s father was a chemist, “and he’d say I became one despite his advice.” But he finds the challenge of science irresistible.
“I like thinking about atoms and molecules and how they interact with each other,” he says simply. In his research, he uses molecular beam techniques to investigate where energy goes in chemical reactions.
But while he’s proud of his research, he finds more fulfillment “when I think about the people I’ve worked with over the years.
“I take satisfaction in watching people succeed. I think that’s the bottom line.”
“In the humanities, I believe we’ve implicitly taken a ‘Socratic oath,’” says Emil Homerin, a professor of religion. “In times of crisis or loss, we can help people ask cogent questions to address the situation.”
Recent history has kept Homerin, a specialist in Islam, Arabic literature, and mysticism, particularly busy. A committed teacher, he takes the work of his classroom beyond the campus, talking with the media and addressing local groups to promote greater understanding of Islamic cultures and societies.
Homerin—who says he knew from the second semester of his freshman year in college that he wanted to be a professor—is the University’s first professor of Islam.
At the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, “there weren’t people on most faculties who were experts” on Islam, he recalls. By the time he completed his doctorate in 1987, at the University of Chicago, universities were hiring specialists.
“I’ve had to cap my classes since I came,” he says. “Student interest was here.”
Homerin teaches an introductory course on the history of Islam and another, called Islam and the Third World, that examines effects on the religion from historical, political, social, and economic factors in the developing world.
Another course—Speaking Stones—was inspired by Homerin’s efforts to draw undergraduate students into the process of academic research. Students meet at Rochester’s historic Mt. Hope Cemetery, the sprawling, Victorian resting place of Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, some of Rochester’s wealthiest citizens, and some of its most vulnerable—one corner holds the graves of children who died at the city’s orphan asylum.
Homerin’s primary area of research is medieval Arabic poetry. The difficulty of learning Arabic is an almost insurmountable obstacle for drawing students into research there, but he realized that his work on medieval Muslim saints does offer a way in.
“Essentially, I’m looking at gravestones and reading obituaries,” he says. So he devised a course in which students learn about Western funeral rites and practices and about funerary art. They turn to the rich resources of Mt. Hope Cemetery to carry out original research on a gravesite there of their own choosing—work that has repeatedly found a home in local historical publications, Homerin notes with pride.
He weaves poetry into all of his courses—something many students aren’t used to reading, he says, but an art form of enduring popularity in the Middle East.
“Poetry can bring an emotional dimension to learning that’s often lacking—to see into the world of others, and perhaps, through that, into our own.
“When you can help students understand others, you’ve done something.”