Werth spills his secrets for excellence in teaching

Brown Prize winner emphasizes importance of playing devil’s advocate

Sociology lecturer Robert Werth arrived at the Center for Teaching Excellence’s University Awards Ceremony ready to “spill his secrets,” as a colleague demanded. The 2018 recipient of Rice’s highest teaching award — the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching — did just that, twice.

"I seek to create classes that I would not have wanted to take as an undergraduate," said Robert Werth at the 2019 University Teaching Awards ceremony. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

“I seek to create classes that I would not have wanted to take as an undergraduate,” said Robert Werth at the 2019 University Awards ceremony. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

His first secret, Werth told his fellow professors April 18 at Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium, is that he makes his classes as difficult as possible, assigning a heavy load of reading, writing and research assignments, even for introductory courses. His second secret is that he lets students know early in the semester he’s there to play devil’s advocate for their ideas and critique their work.

In other words, Werth said, “I seek to create classes that I would not have wanted to take as an undergraduate.” And yet, he admitted, “those two secrets apply to almost every class of everyone in here, so that doesn’t add a whole lot.”

So if Werth’s teaching secrets are already well-known and well-applied at Rice, what sets his instruction apart? What won him the Brown Prize last year, as well as other past accolades such as the Sarah A. Burnett Teaching Prize in the Social Sciences?

‘Constantly engaged and pushing the envelope’

Jim Elliott, chair of the sociology department, introduced Werth before the afternoon talk as “a friend, colleague and all-around great guy” whose teaching work is distinguished by the amount of time he spends challenging his students.

Since coming to Rice as a sociology lecturer in 2012, Werth has taught over 1,700 students across a wide range of courses, from Introduction to Sociology to more advanced topics including Deviance in Popular Culture and Crime, Punishment and Society.

In each course, Elliott said, Werth was “constantly engaged and pushing the envelope,” making himself available to students both inside and outside of the classroom, participating in town halls and taking students on trips to cultural centers and museums.

McMurtry Auditorium was packed for the ceremony April 18.

McMurtry Auditorium was packed for the ceremony April 18.

“In one recent student review that I read of Rob, the student simply put: ‘Professor Werth is a legend,’ and I couldn’t agree more,” Elliott said.

Indeed, giving Rice students a challenge seems to be the key to legendary lectures. Werth began his address with praise for the students and their open-minded approach to education.

“They are an important part of the teacher I am today,” he said before directly addressing some of his own students gathered in McMurtry Auditorium for the ceremony.

“You are great not just because of how intelligent you are, but you are great also because of how engaged you are — how serious and committed you are to learning and to taking chances and pushing yourself intellectually,” he said. “In fact, at Rice, sometimes I feel like my job as a professor is much more to be a good curator: to curate good readings and materials, to ask good questions and then let students do the work.”

Pushing back through criticism and questioning, Werth said, allows him to engage students on multiple levels and put them in a space of “intellectual discomfort,” an allusion to the title of his lecture: “Multiple methods, new knowledges and dis/comfort: The classroom as experimental space.”

‘The productive space of intellectual discomfort’

 A “parallax” describes how an object’s position seems to change depending upon the point  from which it’s viewed. This reexamination of ideas once considered fixed — finding new ways of understanding old things — is just one accomplishment students can achieve within the so-called “productive space of intellectual discomfort.”

Andrea Ballestero has a book chapter on thinking about theory as a parallax — as a way for us to change our perspective on things in the world,” Werth said, citing the work of a fellow Rice professor who teaches anthropology. “I often have students read that piece early on, and I encourage them to take that chapter and that idea of theory as a parallax and think about readings, ideas, empirical findings, et cetera as a parallax from which to think with and to explore.”

Whatever their initial impressions of an idea, he encourages students to take that perspective seriously and engage with it on its own terms — “to look for merit before submitting it to critique.”

“Part of my role as a professor is to push students gently but meaningfully,” Werth said.

“Part of my role as a professor is to push students gently but meaningfully,” Werth said.

“We all want critical thinking,” Werth said. “But what I’m encouraging here as the first step of critical thinking is to read and think carefully, slowly and generously with new ideas.”

Yet it’s not enough to be presented with new ideas, Werth said. Equally vital to occupying the productive space of intellectual discomfort is asking students to examine their own reactions to these new ideas and how these reactions are influenced by a student’s preexisting thoughts, opinions and biases.

“Part of my role as a professor is to push students gently but meaningfully,” Werth said. “I’ve found that, by and large, Rice students respond well to this. In fact, they want to be pushed both in their written work and inside the classroom.”

‘We’re all in this together’

 Remembering that every student comes with a unique understanding of the world is crucial to meaningful engagement, Werth stressed. No one comes into a class as a blank slate.

“Students do not learn as empty vessels, so we need to be thoughtful about that when we teach,” he said. And because being asked to examine their biases and question their own assumptions can be very challenging, at the end of the day there needs to be a constructive, supportive environment around all of this envelope-pushing.

This is why, amid all of the devil’s advocacy and critique, Werth said it’s imperative to “foster a spirit of collective exploration.”

Included in that spirit of collective exploration are two guiding principles: “We’re all in this together” and “we’re not here to impress each other,” Werth said.

“I try to embody this spirit in my teaching, in the classroom and in my interactions with students,” Werth said, adding that he encourages his students to do the same. “And to the extent that we embody this, the classes go better.”

Critical thinking and a spirit of inclusivity are two life skills Werth hopes his students will hone in his courses and take with them into the world beyond Rice. They’re skills he views as more vital than ever, at a moment in time that Werth said “some have characterized as ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact,’ or as an era of ‘alterative facts’ and social media distortion, where we are witnessing the rise of populist authoritarianism and claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China and claims that scientists are elites, disconnected from the common folk.”

“This climate turns research, teaching and learning into somewhat subversive acts — into acts that can counter this anti-intellectual moment,” he said. “And it seems to me we need to embrace and protect these things and do them with ever more passion in our current moment.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.