Friday Profile

Have you ever had to refute that negative stereotype of university professors as poor teachers who only care about their research? A new book by Catharine Hoffman Beyer and her colleagues at the University of Washington provides research to back up what many of us already know from experience: most professors care deeply about teaching and continuously work hard on improving it. You can learn more about Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience (SUNY Press) from this Inside Higher Ed article

And for some remarkable examples of University of Michigan professors who are innovative and passionate about undergraduate teaching, see our Friday Profiles series. Or look around: they're all over campus. 

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When a professor receives a standing ovation from his students at the semester's end, he must be doing something right. And something rare as well: in the words of one student of Thurnau Professor of History Brian Porter-Szűcs, “the much deserved standing ovation was something I have never seen before or since.”

Porter-Szűcs certainly doesn’t win his students’ acclaim by taking on obviously popular topics. His courses on the history of Poland and the development of the Catholic Church, for instance, focus on subject matter about which many students report having had no prior interest or knowledge. And his courses often treat grim and difficult themes such as the effects of war and the moral complexities of major European social struggles.

But as both students and colleagues report, Porter-Szűcs is beloved for his remarkable commitment to taking undergraduates seriously as intellectual interlocutors and key members of the History department’s academic community. In his undergraduate classes, he engages students as fellow thinkers by giving them primary documents along with a range of historical interpretations—often arguments with which he fundamentally disagrees—and asking them to come to their own conclusions. He uses class blogs to facilitate their interactions with one another’s analyses. And he inspires students to pursue their intellectual passions beyond the bounds of the classroom. Under his guidance as the department's first Director of Undergraduate Studies, the once-moribund History Club has grown into a vibrant intellectual community for undergraduate concentrators. And under his mentorship, a steady stream of students have proceeded to post-graduate study, many of whom who say they would never had thought of themselves as scholars before taking one of his courses. In short, students stand up and applaud Porter-Szűcs not because he entertains them but because he respects them as thinkers.

They do also admit, though, that he is an extraordinarily engaging speaker. Read more »

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Steve Skerlos, Thurnau Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has become so well known among his colleagues as a deeply engaged and innovative teacher that his name has become for many of them a synonym for pedagogical success. His department has developed their own playful terminology: a “Skerlosian Effort” indicates a high score on the “Skerlosian Scale” of teaching effectiveness.

Professor Skerlos’s own Skerlosian Efforts are many and lasting; students past and present enthusiastically describe the long-term impact he has had on their academic and professional lives. In describing his teaching, they regularly mention his passion, his ability to teach to a range of learning styles, and his sensitive mentoring. Students and colleagues alike praise Skerlos’s model of “learning through doing”—his drive to enable students to become engineers by working as engineers, side-by-side with their professor.
 
Professor Skerlos sparks and fosters student passion partly by emphasizing the potential of good engineering to do good in the world.  He has put sustainability at the center of undergraduate education in engineering, co-creating key programs and specializations in Sustainable Engineering, Global Health Design, and Sustainable Water and Energy. The Program in Sustainable Engineering, where Skerlos is now Director, has a 9-credit specialized study in sustainable engineering. The program is working towards educating all undergraduate engineers in sustainability awareness and how they can act positively in the field through design. Through the work of BLUElab, a student-run program he co-founded, Skerlos has cultivated student interest in sustainability by mentoring and collaborating with student teams on projects that seek to, for instance, recover heat from residential shower water and convert farm waste to bioenergy.
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When Thurnau Professor of Art Sadashi Inuzuka visited a colleague’s performance studies class to give a guest lecture, he began by handing each student a chunk of clay to work while he talked. The gift of clay invited students to engage their bodies in the process of thinking about land and their physical connection to it—an invitation they delightedly accepted as they kneaded the lumps into small forms that Inuzuka later fired and returned to them. Inuzuka is internationally renowned as an artist whose sculptures powerfully explore the relationships between humans and the natural world. But he is equally renowned among U-M colleagues and students as a remarkable teacher who can guide students, through such simple acts as handing them clay, to deeply embodied insights about the transformative social power of art.

The sheer breadth of Inuzuka’s teaching speaks to his flexibility as a teacher. But whether through his innovative drawing workshops for first-year medical students (designed to develop skills of observation as well as a comfort with loss of control), or his interdisciplinary course on environmental concerns in the Great Lakes region, Professor Inuzuka’s teaching consistently reflects two core pedagogical principles: 

  • The artistic process creates community and provides tools for social engagement.
  • Learning happens best when students are given the space to find their own methods, forms, and answers.
Inuzuka’s enactment of these ideas is perhaps best illustrated by the innovative ways he has connected the School of Art & Design to Southeast Michigan’s low-vision community. Through his “Many Ways of Seeing” courses and workshops, created in partnership with the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Detroit Public Schools, and community groups, Professor Inuzuka has given students what many describe as a life-altering experience of collaboration with blind and visually-impaired children and adults.
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What if every college course had "curiosity" as an explicit prerequisite?  

When Bradford Orr introduced the course "Everyday Physics" into the University of Michigan curriculum in 1993, he included such a prerequisite on the syllabus. Moving away from the then-standard Physics pedagogy of lecture and textbook lessons, the course focused on "hands-on" discovery, as student groups performed lab experiments to study a series of everyday phenomena: soap bubbles, light waves, electrical circuits. The students worked with familiar materials to learn about the ways basic physical principles affect their daily lives--and can be observed and tested without elaborate equipment.  At the time a pioneering venture in curiosity-driven, experiential learning, the course continues to be the most popular elective in the U-M Physics curriculum.  

And Orr himself continues to be an extraordinarily innovative teacher. Honored in 2012 with an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, his creative and committed instruction has also been acknowledged with a range of teaching awards, including the Provost's Teaching Innovation Prize (TIP), a Rackham Graduate Student Mentoring Award, and the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award.

While Orr's teaching continues to develop with every new course and semester, students repeatedly return to the fundamentals--instructor passion and student engagement--in their praise of his teaching.  They describe Orr as encouraging students to "actively think about the material instead of receiving it passively." They attest that he "demonstrates genuine concern for fostering a love of learning and discovery of new ideas for all students." And they praise his creation of a "learning environment . . . that prepares future physicists for the road ahead and opens all students to what 'real' science and physics is all about." Read more »

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