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O great teacher, where art thou?
First-rate teaching is alive and well at the University
By Pauline Oo
From M, fall 2007
Approachable. Engaging. Full of enthusiasm. A good teacher is an academic alchemist who can transform any course into pure gold. If we've been lucky, we've all had a great teacher at some point in our life, and we instinctively know it. He or she is not necessarily the person with infinite knowledge of a particular subject; how to calculate angular momentum may roll off her tongue, or he may know Shakespeare's sonnets as well as his own face, but if these teachers can't make you care about their subjects, all those learned words are just talk. And if you feel they don't care about you? Forget it. Paula O'Loughlin is an associate professor of political science at Morris. In her decade-plus career there, she has chalked up numerous distinctions, most recently the Morse-Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching. O'Loughlin is known for her astonishing commitment to students and for pushing them to do more than they think they are capable of doing. "If you open the door for them and say, 'Hey, you could be good enough to get a Ph.D.,' they will rise to that level," she says. O'Loughlin's efforts have helped send many students to Washington, D.C., for internships and led others to apply for graduate fellowships. Her commitment to teaching naturally spills into her role as an adviser. She has about 45 advisees, twice as many as some of her colleagues. "I don't want to turn people away and then have some students say I'm playing favorites," says O'Loughlin. "It's more work, but you know what? Students can help each other; [teaching is] a collective process. At times, I will have my advisees and students get to know each other so they can talk about student government or what it's like to apply for the Truman Scholarship, for example. There's a little bit of outsourcing [that takes place whenever I teach or advise]."
Grounded in teachingWith the U's goal of becoming one of the world's top-three public research universities, there has naturally been a focus on its research. Yet the U's emphasis remains on great teaching. "The people in Minnesota want professors who will show some attention to their sons and daughters and help them through school, give them a lot of guidance on their career, and be there for them," says electrical engineering professor Bruce Wollenberg, a 2007 recipient of the University's award for outstanding contributions to postbaccalaureate, graduate, and professional education. "And the research is, maybe you could say equal, but really in my opinion, it's secondary [to teaching]." Provost Tom Sullivan, the University's chief academic officer, believes everything the U does is grounded in teaching, and that "some of the very best teaching owes its roots to the experience gained through active research, which in itself is a type of learning and teaching." First-rate teaching captivates the imagination, makes us open our minds to possibilities, and inspires us to think and look beyond ourselves. "My charge in every course is to provide an intellectually rigorous experience," says O'Loughlin. "I pay attention to students' backgrounds. If students in a class are highly familiar with a course content, I increase the difficulty of the material. Anything less would be disrespectful of my students' possibilities." Wollenberg, who also has a reputation for presenting tough material with great clarity and ease, thinks nothing of overhauling his syllabi when the times call for it. For example, in the 1990s Congress passed legislation that deregulated the entire electric power industry in the United States; Wollenberg responded by almost immediately rebuilding his course content so students could understand the new world in which they could pick their power company, just as they could choose their long-distance phone service. Good teachers, he says, have one ear tuned to the world and another to their students. "I have a colleague down the hall, who's not a fulltime professor, but this guy has a good rapport with his students. He [literally] has a welcome mat in his doorway," says Wollenberg. "I look at him and I think I've got to be a little more like him."
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