Nine faculty received the 2022 George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, which honors top Rice instructors by votes from alumni who graduated within the past two, three and five years.
As the university resumes normal operations after two years, Rice News asked the recipients for their thoughts on returning to teaching in-person classes and keeping students engaged.
James DeNicco, Lecturer in Economics
I am very excited to back in person. I missed the classroom very much. I think there is nothing like the immersive environment of in-person learning to engage students. I think there is a place for online learning and technology to support our students, but I think we should prioritize in-person learning when we can.
Matthew Elliott, Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering
I've felt like a fish being thrown back into the water. The students have been engaged and active, and you can tell they're happy to be back.
Esther Fernández, Associate Professor of Spanish Peninsular Literature and Culture
Since I am a Resident Associate at Wiess College living on campus and the size of my classes is relatively small, I was lucky to teach in person throughout most of the pandemic. In that sense I did not experience a harsh return to in-person teaching as others might have. However, teaching in person during the pandemic gave me a new perspective on the importance of being present in the classroom. I never felt such a stronger connection with my students. We all wanted and needed to create community in the little opportunities we had in our day-to-day and our classroom became one of them.
I remember talking to a friend on the phone the day I had to decide if I wanted to teach online or in person and he told me: "Esther, we are literature professors but above all we are storytellers, and to fulfil that role and excel at it we need people around us. You are lucky to have the option."
And that was it. I decided to go in person, not really knowing how many people will show up in the auditorium next day or how I will manage the dual teaching. It took a common effort to push through the many unknowns, but we did it. I say "we" because, in each course we became a tight community where we all understood the value of creating a learning space that was also a support system.
I think the pandemic taught me and my students to experience the true power of literature in building creativity, empathy, tolerance and the gift of listening to each other. I still don't know some of my students' true smiles without their masks, but this is something I am just discovering this semester!
Jeffrey Hartgerink, Professor of Chemistry
I was very happy to have this semester go back to some version of normal! We learned a lot about teaching remotely over the last two years and there are some good things about that approach to be retained under ordinary circumstances - but mostly it was horrible for both teachers and students. I feel it is really important now to be empathetic with students. We've all gone through a lot and acknowledging that things have been tough helps.
Seeing faces in person helps me to keep up the energy in the classroom and I think students respond to that. It is a privilege to teach at Rice and I hope that my love for chemistry is conveyed to the class.
Caleb McDaniel, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities, Chair of History
In the next few years, all of us, teachers and students alike, will be bringing new things into the classroom - new questions and new ideas, as well as new joys and new sorrows - that came with the pandemic. One of the things I will be carrying with me is the knowledge that learning well, in these times and perhaps in any time, requires courage and compassion for each other.
Colette Nicolaou, Lecturer in Psychological Sciences
When we shifted to online learning in the midst of global uncertainty, Rice students rose to the occasion - they logged into class, they engaged brilliantly and they changed the boundaries of traditional learning. While we had some good times on Zoom, in our fuzzy slippers and with pets walking across the screen, there always seemed to be something missing. There is an energy created when a group of Rice students comes together - it's electrifying! Standing in the midst of their strength and vitality instantly elevates my teaching. I am so grateful to my students for their enthusiasm to learn, their hard-earned resilience and for always greeting me with smiling eyes (peeking above face masks). They set the tone for a warm welcome and a truly resplendent return to campus.
Naoko Ozaki, Lecturer in Japanese
I try to see what is possible instead of the obstacles that a new teaching environment presents. When we moved to online teaching abruptly two years ago, I asked myself, "What can I do thanks to the technology?" I was grateful to have the option and technology which were not available at the previous world pandemic 100 years ago.
Returning to in-person classes felt easier as we knew what it was like to teach face-to-face, but I still asked myself, "How can I modify my teaching thanks to the experience of having taught online classes?" The easiest adjustment was to take some things, such as teaching how to write new characters, out of the class time by using the technology. This left more time to focus on other things that we could only do together.
Online teaching gave me opportunities to explore creative ways to use Zoom. In summer 2020, I worked with colleagues from other universities on intercollege communications. Through various attempts to bring interactive opportunities for my students, I was able to connect my students with Japanese families residing in Japan in spring 2022.
The assigned tasks are related to Japanese language learning and metalinguistic analysis, while my ultimate hope for them was to gain some insights into cross-linguistic communication and discover something about themselves which they can apply when they become leaders after they graduate from Rice University. It brought me a great deal of pleasure and hope that each student has learned more than what I was hoping for, and I look forward to seeing all of them become leaders in their respective fields.
Adrienne Correa, Assistant Professor in BioSciences
I wasn't able to return to teaching in person this semester but I'm looking forward to doing this in the near future. Although it is still possible to connect with each other and to employ active learning techniques when classes meet via remote technology, my experience is that you can "read the room" and share energy with others much more easily in person. As an additional way of keeping students engaged moving forward, I am excited to use video calls to bring in guest speakers that can share their diverse perspectives and experiences with students - this enriches any course, whether in person or virtual!
Carissa Zimmerman, Senior Lecturer in Psychological Sciences
I am so happy to be back in the classroom, and thankful to every single person who contributed to our being able to do so safely. My daughter was too young to be vaccinated until the end of last fall, so this is actually my first semester in person since March 2020. I'm currently teaching Social Sciences Statistics, which is generally not a course that students look forward to taking for fun; even so, their energy and enthusiasm has been invigorating and reminds me every day how much I absolutely love teaching here at Rice.