THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 28, Spring 2005

William A. McEachern, Editor

Professor of the Year

Professor of the Year, the most recognized national prize for undergraduate teaching, is awarded by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The first award was given in 1981 with one annual winner until 1994, when winners started coming from each of four institutional categories; two-year, baccalaureate, master's, and Ph.D. Each year about 300 to 400 are nominated through their institutions for the $5,000 prizes.

One judge noted that winners must be smart, articulate, must care about students, and must have a passion for teaching. The focus is less on teaching philosophy than on teaching results. The committee looks for evidence that professors are doing what they say they are doing. For example, if the objective is for students to write better, the application should contain writing samples.

The 2004 winner for master's institutions is Rhona Campbell Free, an economics professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and only the second economist among the 57 winners so far (an economist won the two-year college prize in 1995). Professor Free told The Hartford Courant that since she was never a dedicated student herself, she recognized that students are often interested in other campus activities, such as drama or sports. To compete for students' attention, she tries never to have a boring class. For example, she often links her teaching to popular culture, such as The Apprentice. She has also used field trips. Visiting an old textile mill transformed into a museum, students learn of ancestors who worked at that mill generations ago.

Carl Wieman, a physicist at the University of Colorado and the 2004 Professor of the Year among Ph.D. institutions, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he approaches teaching like he does scientific research—by discovering what works and what doesn't. He has found that formal, abstract presentations don't work, but engaging demonstrations that involve students do work. For example, he asks students to predict how a cannonball will react in a microwave oven compared to a CD. He then demonstrates the difference in class (the cannonball is so dense that nothing happens, but sparks fly from the CD). In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize for physics. I watched his Nobel lecture (http://nobelprize.org/physics/laureates/2001/wieman-lecture.html), which he began by noting the challenge of explaining his research to an audience that ranged from Nobel physicists to his mother. His down-to-earth delivery supplemented by clarifying PowerPoint slides shows why he is a winning teacher.

Good teaching has many faces. One recent winner was described as preacher-like with a dramatic flair. Another was more soft-spoken with an oddball sense of humor. A third had a conversational teaching style. Trying to spell out the best way to teach is like trying to spell out the best way to sing. It can't be done.

Of the 57 Professors of the Year awarded so far in the program's 24-year history, English has claimed the most, at 8, biology has won 7, philosophy, 6, physics, 5, chemistry and fine arts, 4 each; computer science, history, languages, and psychology, 3 each; anthropology, economics, engineering, political science, and math, 2 each, and nursing, 1. The yet-to-win list includes communications, education, geography, geology, linguistics, sociology, statistics, and the business fields of accounting, finance, management, and marketing.

Men have won 37 of the 57 awards, including all those in physics (6), chemistry (4), history (3), anthropology (2), and political science (2). Women have picked up the awards in economics (2) and in math (2). Not surprisingly, more than three quarters of awards (44 of 57) went to full professors, including all awards after 2001. But thirteen winners, eight women and five men, were less than full professors at the time. What has since happened to this group of early achievers? One woman moved from associate professor at one college to endowed professor at a university. Six other women moved up at least one rank at their own institutions and three of the six became department or program heads. It's unclear whether the eighth woman was promoted at her community college, but she has since been appointed program head. So all eight women moved up. The men didn't fare as well. Only one of the five has since been promoted and none has become a department or program head.

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