Werth: Classroom environment should embrace curiosity, uncertainty and risk-taking

Sociology lecturer to be honored with George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching

When asked to define excellent teaching, Robert Werth, a lecturer of sociology in Rice University’s School of Social Sciences and the 2018 recipient of the university’s highest teaching award — the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching, admitted that is not such an easy question to answer.

Robert Werth

Robert Werth

“I feel like there are many things that go into great teaching, and different ways of achieving it,” he said. “There are different styles, forms and techniques of teaching that can be effective. So for me, teaching begins with this recognition – that not everybody learns the same way, and that topics can and should be approached differently.”

That said, Werth, who teaches courses on law, crime and punishment, believes enthusiasm and passion are “crucial elements” to teaching.

“The great teachers I have known, you could sense their deep and true enjoyment for exploring, asking questions and searching for ways to think about things,” Werth said. “And the enthusiasm and enjoyment of students are also an element of great teaching. This, of course, has to come from the students, but I feel that an element of great teaching is helping foster and create an environment of excitement among students. Great teachers enjoy thinking, talking and learning about things, and being around others who do as well.”

Werth said teaching courses at a university is akin to creating a “problem space” – an environment for the exploration of questions, topics and things people want to know more about.

“I think of classes – both the physical classroom but really the entire experience of taking a class — as a laboratory for collective exploration,” Werth said. “And it needs to be an environment that embraces curiosity, uncertainty and risk-taking. And I often tell students that while we may produce or come across some answers, learning is as much, or more, about asking new questions, looking at things from different perspectives and questioning our own knowledge and assumptions.”

Werth said he is “deeply honored and humbled” to receive the George R. Brown Prize.

“Learning, especially in a university setting, is a collaborative process,” Werth said. “Multiple people contribute and participate. So I feel humbled to have been recognized with this award. I of course feel happy about it as well.”

Werth graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and from the University of California, Irvine with a Master of Arts in social ecology and a Ph.D. from the interdisciplinary criminology, law and society program. He said many people from his educational experience inspired his teaching.

“When I was an undergraduate, three professors in particular had a very significant impact,” he said. “Jodi O’Brien taught a classical sociological theory course that literally changed my life. Karen Heimer, a sociology professor who focused on crime and punishment, inspired me and encouraged me to consider graduate school. And Jay Holstein taught a large lecture class called Quest for Human Destiny that was remarkably engaging and inspiring. During graduate school many of my professors inspired me, including, in particular, Elliott Currie and Susan Coutin.”

Werth said he is also continually inspired by his colleagues in Rice’s Department of Sociology and Andrea Ballestro, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice with whom he is teaching a course this semester.

“They are fantastic teachers who truly value teaching,” he said.

The George R. Brown Prize is not Werth’s first teaching accolade at Rice. He previously received Rice’s Sarah A. Burnett Teaching Prize in Social Sciences.

Outside of academia, Werth enjoys spending time with his family and dog. He also enjoys cooking and watching a movie occasionally.

Werth encourages new teachers to enjoy their time in the classroom.

“Experiment with and spend a lot of time on creating the syllabus,” he said. “Talk to other teachers, and sit in on their classrooms. Do not judge how an individual class session is going (solely) by the faces of the students. If I relied too much on this, I would have quit several years ago. Lastly, talk to students directly: Ask for their input, ask them what works and what doesn’t, what they want more or less of or what we’re not even thinking about. Talk to students in the classroom and in office hours about teaching and learning.”

The Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching is awarded on the basis of surveys of Rice alumni who graduated two, three and five years ago.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.