Sociology’s Emerson wins Rice’s top teaching prize

Sociology’s Emerson wins Rice’s top teaching prize

As a scientist, Michael Emerson has a deep appreciation for hard data and objective truth, but as an award-winning teacher, he knows that students require something more.

“Humans fundamentally do not relate to facts or theories; they relate to stories,” said Emerson, winner of the 2014 George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching. “To make facts and theories and systems meaningful, they must be tied to a story. Any great preacher or speaker will tell you the key is to have a few clear points and make them memorable through vivid illustrations and stories. That is how we learn and that is more and more how I strive to teach.”

The Brown Prize, Rice’s highest teaching award, is given annually to one professor based upon a survey of alumni who graduated within the past two to five years. The prize was announced April 28 at a ceremony in Herring Hall hosted by Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and also co-director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, was unable to attend the ceremony because he is currently living in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he is conducting research as part of a yearlong sabbatical.

Emerson also won the Brown Prize in 2006 and has three times won the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching. He has been a member of Rice’s faculty since 1999 except for one year when he left Rice to teach at the University of Notre Dame.

Among the courses that Emerson teaches are Race and Ethnic Relations, Urban Sociology, the Sociology of Religion, and Urban Life and Systems, which sends students out into the community to help them better understand urban development and the life experiences of urbanites.

Emerson said two factors matter the most for excellent teaching: love of subject and truly caring about students.

“When you order food at a restaurant, sometimes the service provider is efficient, but not particularly warm or engaged,” Emerson said. “They get the job done, but nothing memorable. At other times you get a bubbly person who seems genuinely to enjoy life and meeting people. You remember the latter and they get bigger tips! It is the same with teaching. If you are bursting with enthusiasm in your subject and truly enjoy being part of helping students learn, learning happens.”

Emerson said there’s no set formula. Teaching a large class requires different methods than teaching a small class, and the quality of students also is important. He said four principles guide him: 1) Order and clarity are essential; 2) Most people respond better to a carrot than a stick; 3) The end goal is not to gain knowledge but wisdom; and 4) Never stop experimenting with ways to improve the classroom experience.

Being willing to try new things — and to learn from failure if necessary — is important to keep a fresh perspective or to develop new ones.

“For example, this past fall, while on sabbatical I taught a course in Denmark that I had no business teaching, called Transportation in Urban Europe,” Emerson said. “I knew little about transportation, and even less about it in Europe. But I very much wanted to learn about the topic, as I felt it would be most useful in returning to my work at Rice.”

He said he wound up teaching the course in a collaborative way in which he learned as much as the students.

“I ended up loving the experience, and according to the evaluations, so did the students. It was paradigm-shifting learning, given that transportation in places like Copenhagen is so fundamentally different from places like Houston. I am ecstatic to be bringing that learning back to a new course I will teach at Rice this coming fall on urban transportation.”

Emerson recalled another successful classroom experiment from the first college course he taught during the summer after his first year of graduate school.

“The course was filled with football and basketball players at the University of North Carolina,” he recalled. “They were busy folks, given that they essentially had full-time jobs besides being students. I related everything we studied to sports, and they loved it. When we would learn something we thought was profound, I would have them shout it out the window down to the quad — often to the surprise of the unexpecting passersby.

“They thought that was great fun,” he said. “And what it meant is that they did not forget what they shouted out the window. They had truly learned.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.