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Group of 12 distinguished teaching award recipients for 2007

Twelve faculty members were honored with distinguished teacher awards April 23 at the McNamara Alumni Center.

Teachers at the top

The U honors faculty who make a profound impact on students

By Deane Morrison

April 20, 2007; updated for Brief, April 25, 2007

She has the gift of fortitude, both intellectual and physical, to withstand the rigors of life as a full professor at a major university. But when she saw the letters from her former students, Maria Damon cried. "I felt that they 'got' me--they got what I'm about," says Damon, an associate professor of English, poet, and poetry expert. "It was very affirming." The students' tales of how Damon had transformed their experience of poetry and even their very lives helped her win a 2006-07 Graduate and Professional Teaching Award, an annual University-wide award that, along with the Morse-Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Award, honors the U's most outstanding teaching faculty.

Maria Damon
Maria Damon, associate professor of English

Recipients of the two awards are inducted each year into the University's Academy of Distinguished Teachers and carry the title Distinguished University Teaching Professor for the rest of their careers at the University.

This year, five Graduate-Professional Teaching Award winners and seven Morse-Alumni winners received their honors at a ceremony April 23 in the McNamara Alumni Center on the Twin Cities campus. About 300 students, colleagues, and fans were on hand to celebrate with them.

What makes a good teacher, anyway? Damon says it's "someone who listens to what the student is saying." But it goes beyond merely hearing the words. "You have to read between the lines," she explains. "Especially with undergraduate teaching, you don't always know what effects you're having until much later, if ever." After more than 18 years on the University faculty, Damon believes that, just as everybody can become a poet, so can teachers can improve.

"Despite their differences, students are united by the desire to be independent adults, to build relationships with others, and to contribute to society," says Patricia James. "They are searching, in their own ways, for a better understanding of themselves--where they came from, and who they want to become."

Thomas Molitor, another of this year's graduate teaching award winners, could not agree more. Many years ago, an administrator told Molitor, then a young faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine, not to waste his time trying to improve his teaching. Luckily, he paid no heed to that advice.

Thomas Molitor
Thomas Molitor, professor of veterinary population medicine

After seeking aid from the University's Center for Teaching and Learning and teaching experts inside and outside his college, Molitor gave up the idea that a professor exists to pour information into the empty vessels of his students. Instead, he embraced the view that student learning styles are not one-size-fits-all and set out to find what works best.


Morse-Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education

* Praveen Aggarwal
, business and economics, Duluth
* Jay Bell, soil, water, and climate
* Thomas Hoye, chemistry
* Patricia James, postsecondary teaching and learning
* Ned Mohan, electrical and computer engineering
* Paula O'Loughlin, political science, Morris
* Joel Samaha, sociology

Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education Award

* Maria Damon
, English
* John Day, neurology and pediatrics
* Ruth Lindquist, adult and gerontological health
* Thomas Molitor, veterinary population medicine
* Bruce Wollenberg, electrical and computer engineering

Recipients teach on the Twin Cities campus except as noted.

"We are not born as outstanding teachers, but require training, experience, mentorship by other faculty, and an interest in experimentation," Molitor says. "Experimentation in teaching is crucial. What works best for instructor X in the classroom may not work for instructor Y." As a specialist in virology, Molitor helps his students master a field where the subject matter shifts and mutates as often as some of the viruses themselves. He has found that students do well when asked to become experts on, for example, individual groups of viruses, such as influenza and herpes, and then instruct their peers. At the graduate and professional level, teachers have more one-to-one contact with students and are concerned with guiding them on the road to becoming professional scholars in the same or a related field.

With undergraduates, however, teachers often find themselves facing classes of students in which many will have no other experience with the subject matter, if they aren't downright hostile to it. Some classes are full of students from low-income or immigrant families for whom a large university is terra incognita.

Patricia James, an art professor in the College of Education and Human Development, won the Morse-Alumni award this year partly for her mastery at reaching such students. "The absolute last thing I wanted to study after leaving high school was art," says one of James's former students, who is now a financial analyst. "I thought of it as being similar to studying 'gym,' a complete waste of time and money....Pat worked every day to make us experience art, not learn about it. We created art, listened to it, and performed it. You never knew what was going to happen in the next class, but you knew it was going to challenge you, make you laugh, make you think."

Patricia James
Patricia James, associate professor of postsecondary teaching and learning

In one of James's classes, students held a poster presentation of aesthetic artifacts from their own cultures. Not only did they learn about the cultures of unfamiliar places, whether Laos, Somalia, the Iron Range, or Minnetonka, but some found lessons about their own cultural heritage. "I learned that wearing Hmong clothing wasn't [just] for my parents, but for me, too," says one young Hmong American. "I have always thought that wearing Hmong clothing was kind of out of my style, but now I realized that it's in my culture, and I will always cherish this clothing." It is her role, says James, to help all her students build bridges to their own futures. "Despite their differences, students are united by the desire to be independent adults, to build relationships with others, and to contribute to society," she says. "They are searching, in their own ways, for a better understanding of themselves--where they came from, and who they want to become."

Members of the academy

The wisdom of this year's award winners will add to the strength of the University's Academy of Distinguished Teachers. The academy was responsible for a full-day conference in advance of the ceremony, which featured 13 presentations, eight workshops, five workshops, and a poster session with 18 participants--all showcasing and sharing best teaching practices across the University system. Topics ranged from the psychology of online courses to working with different learning styles to the importance of the physical classroom. A keynote address was given by a guest professor who specializes in peer instruction.

A list of presentations is posted on the academy Web site, where conference proceedings will also be posted soon.


"Building strong communities" (April 26, 2006)

"Teaching through change" (October 12, 2005)

"Supporting great teaching" (April 21, 2005)