In the 1964 satirical movie “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a pilot frets over the nuclear bomb his plane is carrying as he flies toward the bomb’s target, the Soviet Union.
Yousif Shamoo referenced the title of that film during the April 26 Teaching Awards Ceremony in Herring Hall while discussing how he used to worry about teaching really large classes. “I had to stop worrying and love the lecture,” he said. “That’s what you have to do when you lecture. You just have to ride the bomb.”
As the recipient of last year’s George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching – Rice’s highest teaching award, Shamoo presented the 2016 Brown Lecture on Teaching Excellence.
He was introduced by John Olson, the Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, with whom Shamoo has co-taught courses for 16 years since joining the faculty in 1998. Olson said that unlike most assistant professors, Yousif “actually volunteered to work with me in Biochemistry 301, our notorious fall tough biochemistry class.”
Now a professor of biosciences and vice provost for research, Shamoo shared his insights on how to have “big fun” in big classes.
He focused on the sociology of Biochemistry 301, whose enrollment exceeds 200 students.
“It’s a large group of people with an unusual set of characteristics,” he said. Because 85 percent of students in biochemistry plan to go to medical or dental school, they tend to be “high-performing, very serious and under extreme grade pressure,” Shamoo said. “They have very serious expectations of you and what they’re going to get out of the class.”
Given that medical schools require students to know about very specific subject matter, Shamoo said he is expected to teach certain topics during the course every time with the same consistency. “The material is incredibly dry. It is not interesting,” he said, adding that course evaluations sometimes note that students “appreciate the fact that Dr. Olson and I try to make the material interesting.”
Shamoo acknowledges to his students that his class is “really hard,” but he reassures them that he will help them understand the concepts and give study tips. He emphasized that much of the active learning happens during evening review sessions that he and Olson lead.
One of the challenges of education is that large-group lectures tend to be passive, impersonal and one-size-fits-all, he said. “I give a lecture, and I expect you to learn the material. Everybody learns so differently – some people are auditory; some people are very visual; some people have to write things down.” Part of the problem initially is helping students identify their way, Shamoo said. “You have to talk with them and discuss with them what problems they had studying the material. Everyone’s strategy is a little different.”
Being passionate about the subject matter is essential to teaching the class. “I have done biochemistry my whole life,” Shamoo said. “I care about biochemistry. I can walk the walk and talk the talk, and my students know that. So I am there for them.” That passion enables Shamoo to pick up on cues that students are confused when he’s presenting a lecture so that he can backtrack and try to interpret the material in a different way for them.
He encourages students to work and think together as they prepare for exams, and he noted that Rice students are “really good” about that. “They are not competitive with each other in the nasty way you see at some other schools,” he said.
Shamoo told young faculty who are new to teaching to show respect not just for their colleagues and department, but also for their students. “If you respect your students, they will respect you,” he said. “They’re people, and you have to respect what they’re going through as human beings. Every student is someone’s son or daughter, or the love of someone’s life. They have their own dreams and aspirations. That part of the respect is most important,” he said. “We are the local parents of these students.” Shamoo said that when he talks to his students, he thinks about what he would say to his daughter in the same situation. “That is an important part of teaching that goes unseen sometimes.”
Honesty is also critical. “You have to be able to admit you’re wrong to your students,” Shamoo said. Faculty who make a mistake should acknowledge it to the class and correct it.
Shamoo also emphasized the value of mentoring to young faculty. A senior mentor can provide practice advice on how to structure a class, how to put together a syllabus, how to organize a lecture and how to deal with a student who is having personal problems, he said.
The unique and special educational experience of Rice depends on new generations of faculty. New faculty need long-term and consistent mentoring from Rice’s best teachers to have the best chance for success. Shamoo praised Olson, his mentor, for having the “guts” to tell him not to let research, committee appointments and other activities distract him from “the most important thing you do at Rice: educate.”
Shamoo concluded his lecture by thanking his research group. “They’re the folks who actually do all the work in my lab while I’m out teaching,” he said.
The 2016 teaching awards were presented after Shamoo’s lecture.
“The great thing about this ceremony is that it provides us with an opportunity to pause and to reflect on the joy that it is to be a teacher,” Provost Marie Lynn Miranda said. “Amongst us we have people who model the way for the entire faculty in terms of their creativity, their innovation, their passion for teaching and their passion for connecting with our students.” She said teaching Rice’s “absolutely amazing undergraduate and graduate students” is a special privilege, and this event allows the Rice community “to celebrate our colleagues and recognize the important contributions that they’ve made to the teaching mission of the university and the overall vibrancy of the university.”
“This is the most wonderful time of the year for the Center for Teaching Excellence,” said Josh Eyler, director of the CTE. “We get to celebrate all of the outstanding teaching that happens here on campus.” He noted that this year the CTE took over the administration of the teaching awards from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduates, with assistance from the alumni relations team headed by Assistant Vice President Marthe Golden for communications with alumni eligible to vote for recipients of the Brown Teaching Awards.
Eyler also announced a new digital teaching archive developed by the CTE and Fondren Library that faculty can use as a resource to improve their teaching and scholars of higher education can use for research.
Winners of the teaching awards were announced in the April 25 Rice News and can be found here. One of the recipients – Biochemistry and Cell Biology Professor Michael Gustin – was officially retired from the competition for the Brown Teaching Awards by receiving the George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit.
Kathleen Matthews, the Stewart Memorial Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, summed up the key qualities of Gustin’s teaching efforts, including “his wide-ranging knowledge, his endeavor to expose students to what is happening currently as well as the established knowledge in the field, his evident commitment to excellence in teaching, his wonderful voice that commands attention of often wandering freshman minds, his capacity to take into account the perspectives of others, his easy laugh and ability to learn the names of all the students in his class and call on them individually” and also “his exceptional ability to think outside the box.”
Gustin, a former master of Wiess College, said one of the achievements he takes a lot of pride in is the student-taught courses, which allow undergraduates to teach and to take classes in nontraditional areas. Gustin first heard about such courses 10 years ago while visiting the University of Virginia, where his daughter was enrolled. He mentioned the courses to some Rice students upon his return. “They took that and ran with it,” he said. The courses have become quite popular, as evidenced by growing enrollment and course offerings. “There have been some amazing courses taught along the way. I hope that program keeps going.” (For more on Gustin’s Brown Certificate of Highest Merit, click here.)
President David Leebron congratulated and thanked the award recipients. “What’s remarkable in many ways about all the extraordinary people we’ve recognized today is how much each and every one of them contributes to the university far beyond what we have recognized today in terms of their teaching,” he said. “Mike Gustin is a great example of that, having taught and conducted his research even while a master here, one of the most important functions that we carry out at the university.”
Leebron said the recipients of the teaching awards should be “joyously celebrated by many of us,” and he expressed appreciation for students attending the ceremony along with faculty and staff. “As you heard from Yousif, what is really important to great teaching is passion – passion for the material but also passion for the students. So thanks to all the students for inspiring us, and thanks to the faculty for also inspiring our students.”