Their students praise them with words like "enthusiastic," "magical," "passionate" and "accessible," all qualities that bring their teaching top marks.
And to recognize publicly the critical importance of excellent teaching, the Alumni Council of The Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association seven years ago established awards and designated funds to honor their recipients.
Although each division handles its selection method differently, there is always a constant: Students must be involved in the process.
At Homewood, a committee of 10 students and one faculty member also named recipients of the Student Council Distinguished Faculty Awards, a task to which they devoted great effort. "It was a huge amount of work," says Ann Jefferson, the Student Council freshman representative who chaired the subcommittee for teaching awards, "even more than my courses."
This year a number of award recipients were especially honored; they've now been singled out more than once for the quality of their work.
Johns Hopkins undergraduates give Steven David a lot of credit for caring about teaching: This is the third time they've voted the political scientist a major teaching award.
But David gives the students a lot of credit too.
"It's important to me that the students are conscientious. ... They care about ideas. That's what gives me energy," David says. "If I was someplace where the students cared only about the football team and parties, I'd be demoralized. You draw from your audience, and the audience has been pretty good."
David has been on the Hopkins faculty since 1981 and has headed the international studies program--the second largest major in Arts and Sciences--since the 1983-84 academic year. That was also the first year he won the George E. Owen Teaching Award.
In 1989, he became the first person to win that award twice. This year's Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award gives him a hat trick.
"I don't think I do anything unusual. I try to be myself," David says. "In international relations, there are times I wish I could be some European intellectual, with an English accent. But I'm from the South Bronx. I know I sound more like some guy you'd meet in a bowling alley than at the Council on Foreign Relations."
David says the international studies major has evolved over the years, especially since the end of the Cold War ended the immediate threat of superpower confrontation. Among the issues that majors examine now is the notion that economic power has supplanted military strength in determining the pecking order of nations. They also debate whether global economic interdependence and widespread democratization promote cooperation or conflict.
David says he and university chaplain Sharon Kugler are putting together an experimental course for next year on mass murder and genocide in the 20th century. They hope to examine, among other tragedies, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre and more recent genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and Burundi. "Why is ethnic conflict so pervasive in the post-Cold War era?" he asks. "Who do people kill each other and create an identity based on ethnicity?"
However his students answer those questions, David will be right there discussing and debating the issues with them.
"I like the students," he says. "Someone once asked me, 'Do you want to spend your life with 18- to 22-year-olds?' and I kinda do. They're enthusiastic, they're fun and they're open-minded. I like that."
When it comes to lighting up the minds of Hopkins undergraduates, John van Zanten must be doing something right.
The assistant professor of chemical engineering has been on the faculty only since 1995. But rave reviews from students just helped him win his second Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award in two years.
"It's quite an honor," van Zanten says. "I'm pretty pleased to be recognized by the students. It's a very big deal to me that students were involved in choosing this award and that it was not done in a political way."
While some young faculty members, anxious to earn tenure, are preoccupied with grant applications and scholarly articles, van Zanten said he always makes time for his students.
"I think it's really important to be available to students in your courses," he says. "I think that's what they appreciate, even more than flashy lectures and Internet tools. I give them office hours when I guarantee I'll be there. But the truth is, anytime I'm in the office by myself they're free to come in and talk to me. And they do."
Because he gives students so much personal attention, van Zanten says he's asked to write numerous letters of recommendation. "I think the students know I'll be fair and give them an honest evaluation," he says.
This year, he was recognized for his skills in steering students through two particularly rigorous courses, one in applied mathematics, the other in chemical kinetics and reactor design. "I worked the students like dogs, and they still liked me," van Zanten says with a smile. "If you treat students well and expect a lot out of them and respect their efforts, they will perform."
He adds, "These are two tough engineering courses. These are not electives that focus on my research interests."
In his lab, he studies complex fluids, especially macromolecular and colloidal physics. But his classroom work, he insists, keeps him sharp. "These kids ask a lot of tough questions," van Zanten says. "It's the teaching that keeps you on your toes."
Hugh Ellis proudly picked up his second award in three years for excellence in teaching undergraduates, even though his department's degree programs are almost exclusively for graduate students.
Ellis, who chairs the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, says he and his colleagues teach a number of popular undergraduate courses, even though Hopkins does not offer an undergraduate major in environmental engineering.
He and the other DOGEE professors apparently excel in the classroom. Of the 10 engineering faculty members nominated this year for Student Council teaching awards, three came from his department. He believes faculty members must be talented in the classroom as well as the lab.
"We're an educational institution. We're not exclusively a research think tank," he says. "Quality instruction has to be the top of our list of priorities." He adds, "You have to make a commitment of time for the students. There's no way around that. If one puts the time and effort into teaching, the students here are so good that one can accomplish some tremendous things."
Ellis was recognized by the Student Council for teaching a course in environmental engineering systems design, which attracts mostly seniors majoring in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, civil engineering and a few other disciplines.
The students divide into small teams to learn how to solve challenging real-world problems involving, for example, water quality control, transportation and storage of spent nuclear waste, ambulance facility siting, ecologically responsible timber harvesting and even the assembling of a stock portfolio with maximum returns and minimum risks.
Beyond the normal class time, Ellis meets with each student team at least once a week to help the group overcome obstacles. "These projects involve a lot of hands-on computing," he says. "They are not toy-size problems."
Ellis was pleased that Hopkins students again recognized the attention he devotes to them. "This second teaching award is enormously important to me," he says. "I think this is one of the most meaningful and fulfilling acknowledgments a faculty member can receive. Teaching is our most important job."