The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 24, 1999
May 24, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 36


1999 Teaching Awards

Homewood Student Council Recognizes Most Effective Professors

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Each year the student council at Homewood pays tribute to outstanding teachers in the schools of Arts and Sciences and of Engineering by bestowing upon them Distinguished Faculty Awards. To select this year's recipients, 10 professors were chosen from each school based upon email nominations from students and the professors' numerical scores from the university's online course evaluation system.

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

Anne Jefferson, chair of the student council's teaching awards committee, says the Distinguished Faculty Awards are an important way for students to acknowledge just how much their teachers are getting through to them.

"I think it's a great way to recognize the positive aspects of undergraduate teaching at Hopkins," Jefferson says. "Everybody wins. Students have a chance to praise their favorite professors and faculty to see their extraordinary peers."

Arts and Sciences

When English professor Allen Grossman is at the lectern, it's a tough call to say who is having more fun, the students or the professor. For 40 years, the last eight of which have been at Hopkins, Grossman has been a fixture in the classroom, and in those four decades of teaching, his delight in teaching has yet to wane.

"Many people are paid to teach; very few have the disposition for it," says Grossman, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, who was one of three Hopkins professors who received the 1999 Student Council Distinguished Faculty Award. "It has always been one of my great joys."

Allen Grossman, Arts and Sciences

"It says a lot for Professor Grossman that he makes students love any text that he teaches," read one student comment from the nominating award survey.

That his students become entranced with the plays, poems and literature he presents to the classroom is no accident. Grossman says he follows the hermeneutic method of teaching, revealing to the students the connection between what is happening in the text and their own daily life and experiences.

"My position is that there is no subject matter out there that one cannot find something with which to identify oneself," says Grossman, author of The Lone Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principal and The Ether Dome.

The best part of teaching?

"Watching people learn, of course--that is the most enjoyable part of it, to pass along the joyousness of this kind of work," he says.

"Dr. Grossman is like a hero to me," says Hopkins senior Dan Grushkin. "You go into his class, and he makes you think of things you've never thought about before. You sit there and absorb all these ideas that are being shot at you one after another, and you'll grasp onto the first idea just long enough to catch the third. It's really amazing. You always feel a little bit changed after his class."

In fact, in perhaps the ultimate tribute to a professor's teaching abilities, Grushkin, who will remain in Baltimore after he graduates, plans to sit in next fall on one of Grossman's courses, a poetry class he's taken before, just to soak up anything he might have missed the first time around.

Katrina Bell McDonald, a sociology professor, is the other award recipient in the School of Arts and Sciences. Most of the classes that McDonald teaches center around her areas of research: welfare, race and social class relations, and urban mothers and their children. McDonald is known for leading demanding and engaging classes that involve lively class discussion and analysis of the latest research--all hallmarks of a good teacher.

But here's the real test: Can she make a statistics class interesting for a right-brainer?

"It was a hard class; there's no question about that," says Hopkins senior Ramsey Neale. "Especially the math part, for me anyway. But Professor McDonald is so unbelievably smart and she can explain one thing in different ways so that we get it. It was actually kind of fun."

When McDonald arrived on campus a few years ago, the Sociology Department didn't offer a statistics course. Sociology students had to go through math or engineering if they wanted to take statistics, a vital part of the trade.

"I just felt that our students have the right to take a statistics course with a social science application to it, which has different nuances and is a different course than what they offer in the Math Department," says McDonald, whose course has become so popular that word of mouth has reached beyond her department, and students in public health and the sciences are lining up to take her course. "I think it's empowering for students to be able to critique data, to be able to look at a study and know whether it's a good piece of research or not."

When she was a graduate student, McDonald found, much to her own surprise, that she had a knack for teaching.

"I found that I was able to explain things in a way that people could understand," she says. "And I found that I really liked that moment in teaching where you see things suddenly click in your students' heads."

Asked about her teaching style, she says she'd simply label it as "honest."

"I believe you have to reveal yourself to some degree when you teach," says McDonald. "I don't want my students to feel alienated from me and what we are learning. I also believe that you can make a class very demanding and it can still be fun. I want them to enjoy what they learn.

Despite her demanding research and teaching schedule, students say McDonald is the type of professor who always keeps her door open.

Said one survey comment: "I went [into her office] doubting my ability and insecure in my knowledge, and I left confident in my understanding of whatever that question was. I have never had a professor consider my understanding and success so important."

"She's the type of person who actually cares about her students," says Neale. "I know several people who say she's helped them through not just school stuff but life stuff. That's pretty unusual, here or at any university. She's just one of those rare, top-quality professors that you won't forget."
--Leslie Rice


When Lynn Roberts learned she had received a teaching award, "it felt like winning the lottery," she recalls.

A week later, Roberts, then an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, also learned that she was being advanced to the rank of associate professor, a crucial step toward earning tenure. Yet Roberts says, "The promotion was almost anticlimactic after hearing about the teaching award. It meant that much to me."

Her view may not be shared in all corners of academia. At a recent meeting, Roberts overheard professors from two highly respected universities discussing a junior faculty member. One of the professors lamented the fact that the young assistant professor kept receiving teaching awards.The professor said his young colleague should be paying more attention to research and less to teaching.

"I just thought that was a crying shame that something as wonderful as a teaching award should be viewed as a negative," Roberts says. "I'm very glad that's not the way teaching efforts are valued at Hopkins."

During the past school year, Roberts taught undergraduate classes in environmental organic chemistry and the chemistry of environmental issues. Her students praised her teaching style as "very clear, enthusiastic and effective." The students also said she asks stimulating questions, pays attention to their opinions and is available for further discussion after class.

"One thing I try to do in teaching," Roberts explains, "is to provide problems that pertain to the real world. That means they often don't have a simple 'yes or no' or 'true or false' answer. I think a lot of us fall into a trap where we try to portray complicated information in an overly simplified manner. That's just not the way the real world, which is full of tradeoffs, works.

"Nowhere is this more true than when you look at environmental problems," she continues. "So many environmental problems are caused by people focusing on one small 'piece of the elephant' and neglecting the interconnections that govern the whole."

Roberts has been a Hopkins faculty member since 1993. She earned her doctorate in civil engineering at MIT.
--Phil Sneiderman

Student Council Distinguished Faculty Awards

Allen Grossman
Katrina Bell McDonald
Lynn Roberts