The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 22, 2000
May 22, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 37


Student Council Awards for Excellence in Teaching

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Granted, C grades aren't very popular at Hopkins, but the teacher conferring them sure might be, according to Anuj Mittal, co-chair of the committee that bestows the Johns Hopkins Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching on outstanding Arts and Sciences and Engineering faculty.

Mittal is quick to point out that this honor, the highest given by undergraduates, is not reserved for teachers who are "easy graders"; in fact, a number of the recommendations this year came from students who received a C or even lower in that person's class.

"The students respected that professor's ability to take a hard topic and make it understandable," Mittal says. "This is a very genuine award. It is the student voice saying, I respect what you have done as a teacher and value what you have taught me."

The winners are selected by a student council committee and a faculty adviser, who base their decisions on written course evaluations and recommendations from undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and faculty. The teachers cannot have won the award within the past three years.

Stephen Wilson, Raymond Westbrook and Roger Westgate are this year's recipients.

Last fall, Wilson, a professor of mathematics, faced more than 200 students in his Calculus II course, the most he had taught in 28 years and an unusually high number for Hopkins. And Wilson had a pretty good idea what had brought them there. The students weren't there for love of the subject matter but because their degree program in science or engineering required them to take the course, a substantial undertaking that covers a great deal of complex material and makes students "work like dogs."

And yet, through a mixture of humor, enthusiasm and caring, Wilson won an Excellence in Teaching Award.

"You take more time and effort to listen to every one of your students than a professor in a class of 20," wrote one student in Wilson's course evaluation.

Stephen Wilson

"I learned more in your class than any other, and was intrigued by your unique way of presenting material," another student wrote. "Your humor helped me stay interested in the lecture and allowed me to learn more."

Wilson, whose research interest is algebraic topology, has been at Hopkins since 1977, when he came from Princeton where he had been since obtaining his doctorate at MIT. The course was his first after returning from a year as a visiting professor in Japan and a vacation in Spain.

"I'm very pleased to receive the award," Wilson says. "It's not something you expect when you're teaching students who aren't exactly happy to be there in the first place."

Raymond Westbrook, a professor of Near Eastern studies with a joint appointment in the Classics Department, says he thinks Hopkins undergraduates are incredibly lucky to study in a research university.

"The whole point I see of a Hopkins education is that we take the undergraduates to the edge of the cliff and help them see what's beyond that edge," Westbrook says.

Ray Westbrook

Westbrook has been teaching ancient and biblical law and Assyriology for about 25 years, the last 13 of them at Hopkins.

"What I research is what I teach. So what they learn is always cutting edge; it is new, not just stuff that's in books. I personally find that teaching helps my research. Presenting my research in the classroom helps me synthesize my ideas. And there have been times when their questions have given me great ideas and set me off in whole new directions."

As a result, the students find his lectures always interesting and have, on occasion, begged for more. Last semester, for example, Westbrook taught a course in advanced Latin to four undergraduates who wanted to learn more on ancient law.

"They were very keen on reading ancient law in its original translation--I found it rather impressive of them."

In the recent student-published Academic Course Evaluation Guide, students raved about Westbrook.

"The very best class I had this year. I almost don't want to tell people about it so it remains a 'find' for the adventurous sort," one student wrote.

"Dr. Westbrook is one of the best professors I've ever had at Hopkins. He delivers organized and interesting lectures," another wrote. "His enthusiasm for the material animates the minds of his students."

After 34 years on the faculty at Hopkins, including several stints as a top Engineering School administrator, Charles R. Westgate still looks forward to working with students in the classroom.

"It's amazing," he says. "They just keep getting better every year. The biggest change over the past few years has been the increased use of technology in the classroom. The students seem to enjoy more lab time and hands-on experience, and it's important for them to see that there are differences between what they read in their texts and what they actually encounter in the laboratory."

Westgate is the William B. Kouwenhoven Professor of Electrical Engineering and executive director of the Engineering School's Part-Time Programs. During his long career at Hopkins, he has been honored several times for his instructional skills, including this year's Student Council Excellence in Teaching Award.

Charles Westgate takes time out with students.

One of his former students, who became a highly successful businessman, last year contributed funds for two full engineering scholarships named for Westgate. Last fall, while teaching the Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering course, the professor was pleasantly surprised to find that the first two "Westgate Scholars" had enrolled in the class. "I especially enjoyed that," he says.

Asked about his teaching philosophy, Westgate says, "I don't think in terms of grades. I try to convey my own enthusiasm for the field. I try to make the students aware of what an exciting field engineering is."

Despite his busy schedule, Westgate has always maintained an open-door policy, making himself available to students who need help or advice.

This story was written by Michael Purdy, Leslie Rice, Greg Rienzi and Phil Sneiderman.