Zammito named a Piper Professor of 2009

Zammito named a Piper Professor of 2009

Special to the Rice News

John Zammito, the John Antony Weir Professor of History, has been selected as a Piper Professor of 2009 for outstanding teaching by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation.

Zammito said the award reaffirms the importance he places on the teaching aspect of his profession.

”I’ve been teaching here for 20 years, and I’ve been teaching at the university level for almost 30 years. I’ve made teaching a very central part of the whole sense of what I do,” said Zammito, who began teaching part-time at Rice in 1989 and full-time in 1994. He previously taught at the University of Texas at Austin and at St. John’s Preparatory School in Houston.


The Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation was organized in 1950 and offers scholarships, student loans and other grants, in addition to the annual Piper Professors Program. The foundation chooses 15 professors in Texas each year to receive the awards.

”My reputation has always been as a lecturer. It’s a performance art,” Zammito said, adding that when he began teaching, he tried to incorporate the best aspects of the lecturers who had taught him.

”It’s a very traditional form of teaching,” he said. “There’s a lot more these days about interactive teaching, self-learning and letting the students do a lot of stuff, and I think that’s all very good. But the fact of the matter is I sure do love to get up in front of a crowd and talk.”

Zammito said his other strength as a professor is spending a lot of one-on-one time with students outside of class learning about who they are and what their goals are.

”It’s not just a matter of helping them with the technical issues of the course,” he said. “One-on-one time with a student is about the whole person. It’s about helping them find themselves and their potential, and I love that.”

Zammito earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Texas. But he found that economics didn’t really tell him what he wanted to know.

”I thought I really needed to understand how the world really works,” he said. ”I started thinking that economics was the way to explain everything.” By the time he graduated he had changed his mind.

Zammito became increasingly interested in philosophy. Nonetheless, he took a job at a brokerage in Memphis, Tenn., writing a book about growth opportunities in what was then called the “New South.” He didn’t find the job particularly fulfilling.

”I’d get home at every night, and I’d try to read German philosophy,” he said. ”But that wasn’t working out very well, and I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to do what I really loved, which was the history of philosophy.”

He went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. He specializes in European intellectual history from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with a particular focus on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Kant’s student and later fierce rival, Johann Gottfried Herder.

During his long career, Zammito has received many prestigious teaching awards. In 1981, his third year at the University of Texas, he won the Jean Holloway Teaching Prize, UT’s most distinguished teaching prize. When he was at St. John’s, he was recognized as one of the top 10 secondary school teachers in the state in 1991. And at Rice in 1999, he received the university’s highest teaching award, the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Zammito has won so many awards at Rice, in fact, that he was ”retired” from receiving any more years ago, so he said the Piper award is very gratifying, especially since it’s a statewide award.

”It felt good at this point in my career to have a significant award for teaching again,” he said. “It reaffirms how important that is in my life.”

Other Rice faculty members who have won the Piper award include Mikki Hebl, Dennis Huston, Ronald Sass, John Hutchinson, Frank Jones, Richard Smith, Allen Matusow and Elizabeth Long.

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