9 recognized with award for superior teaching

Nine faculty received the 2020 George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, which honors top Rice instructors as determined by the votes of alumni who graduated within the past two, three and five years.

The winners of this year’s awards are being honored during a semester presenting unprecedented challenges for the best of faculty. So we asked the recipients for their thoughts on what they’ve learned as they’ve shifted to online teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alexander Butler

Alexander Butler

Alexander Butler, professor of finance

Through teaching and observing online course delivery, I realize how difficult it is to maintain the give-and-take class discussion that I thrive on, and that difficulty increases rapidly with class size. Online delivery is great if all I need to do is lecture at people, but I have a lot to learn still about how to make the large online classroom as interactive as I would prefer.

Simon Fischer-Baum, assistant professor of psychological sciences

Simon Fischer-Baum

Simon Fischer-Baum

I was unaware of just how much in-person interactions are irreplaceable. My enthusiasm as an instructor feeds off of the energy of the students in the classroom. Even in a big, impersonal lecture class, in-person interactions give me a sense of which ideas land and which ones miss. Student questions and interactions with each other can lead the class into promising and unexpected new directions. At first, I was surprised by how doable it was to port my syllabus online, and figure out ways to continue doing many of the same things that I was doing before. But a class is so much more than a syllabus, and while I can get the pieces of the course to work online, the class that emerges is nothing like what we were able to accomplish together in person.

Rob Griffin

Rob Griffin

Rob Griffin, professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior associate dean for the Brown School of Engineering

It’s not so much of having learned something — rather it’s being reminded once again of the grit, determination, work ethic and ingenuity of our students!

Jason Hafner

Jason Hafner

Jason Hafner, professor of physics and astronomy

The introductory physics class I’m teaching this semester already has many components online, so it has not been too much of a culture shock. However, I did not appreciate how much I rely on in-person interactions to know if a student understands what I am saying. Explaining how to do a physics problem to a screen that just shows the student name is tricky!

Deborah Harter, associate professor of classical and European studies

Deborah Harter

Deborah Harter

I may have learned most of all, this end of semester, what I already knew: how resilient Rice students can be in challenging times; how much I miss, with online teaching, reading up close those facial expressions that let me know when a topic has spun out too long or delighted in some small way; and how much our students gain when a classroom’s community makes of learning a shared endeavor. But I also discovered that I could restore this sense of community, if symbolically, by inviting my students to arrive online, on particular days, with hot tea or coffee in hand. I learned how effective Zoom can be for one-on-one meetings. And I look forward to using this technology in the future when I am out of town. In the end, I was grateful, even as we gave up our tangible classrooms, that Zoom dashed in with its intangible screens.

Luay Nakhleh, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Computer Science, professor of biochemistry and cell biology and department chair of computer science

Luay Nakhleh

(I’ve learned) how much I enjoy teaching in person. One of the reasons I chose to go to the academia is because I love teaching. If teaching was done only virtually, I’m not sure I would say I love teaching anymore. Teaching online has brought to the fore the big disparities in students’ background, environments and means. Campus living is a great equalizer, but also conceals from us — the faculty — the personal struggles of some students. So, being forced to teach online has given me a new perspective on the struggles of some students that I wouldn’t have known had we continued to teach in person.

Colette Nicolaou, lecturer in psychological sciences

Colette Nicolaou

Colette Nicolaou

Teaching is about community. It’s natural to feel connected when we sit across the room from our students. However, the uncertainty of distance learning challenged everything I knew and loved about education. As I scrambled to modify my courses, I worried that no one would show up for lectures, that so much rich material would be lost, and that there would be no spark. But as I switched gears and followed the students’ lead, I experienced the remarkable creation of a new type of classroom. We were more flexible, we ran off topic, we explored more creative problem solving, we met each other’s parents and pets, we delved deeper into some topics, we made a cup of tea together, and every day, we all learned something new. While the arena may change, teaching will always be about connections. In spite of time zones, Wi-Fi speeds and Zoom bombs, I never could have imagined the strength of the bond I have felt with my magnificent students during this very unusual spring semester.

Anthony Várilly-Alvarado, professor of mathematics

Anthony Várilly-Alvarado

Anthony Várilly-Alvarado

I am only teaching a small graduate seminar right now, but I’ve spent a lot of time talking to colleagues about the online teaching experience, and my conversations have reinforced the conclusions of Anthony Jack’s “The Privileged Poor.” Access, and stable physical and mental working conditions, are real luxuries at this time, and although our students are trying their hardest to complete the semester, experiences vary wildly. Our faculty would be well advised to summon all our reservoirs of empathy and work with students who are having difficulties right now.

Robert Werth, senior lecturer in sociology

Robert Werth

Robert Werth

The first thing I will say, although this would have occurred to me before, is that converting a class from in-person to remote instruction is not an easy process, and it is a process that requires considerable thought, time and care. While there are of course many shared elements between in-person and remote instruction, teaching in these two different formats is quite different. Second, the coronavirus pandemic and switch to online teaching has really highlighted to me how essential student presence, engagement and enthusiasm is for the learning process. And presence, engagement and enthusiasm can be — and were — present in Zoom classes, to be sure. At the same time, this has shown me that the act — the ritual, we could say — of gathering together collectively in a classroom is perhaps an underappreciated element of the learning process. Lastly, I will say that I missed seeing students in classes and around campus even more than I expected. I am looking forward to returning to that at some point (relatively) soon.

About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is editor of Rice New.