The following nine faculty received the 2023 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:
Betul Orcan-Ekmekci, assistant teaching professor of mathematics
Philip Ernst, professor of statistics
Amelie Carlton, senior lecturer of economics
Marcia Brennan, the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of the Humanities
Bilal Ghosn, lecturer in bioengineering
Lora Wildenthal, the John Antony Weir Professor of History and Director of the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality
Vida Yao, assistant professor of philosophy
Tom Stallings, professor in the practice of sport management and Director of Career Development
Mary Greitzer, lecturer in music
On this occasion, Rice News asked the recipients what key differences they’ve noticed in terms of what it takes to be a successful teacher in 2023 compared to when they first began teaching college students. Below are some of their responses.
Honestly there are not too many things I am doing differently in front of the classroom other than I am less serious in the classroom than when I first started. I still call on people, do demonstrations, use lots of examples from the sport industry, start with asking the class questions instead of just lecturing, and change things up when I see students looking at the clock or starting to zone out.
My first year at Rice, I had come directly from the industry and was pretty intense. I lectured my first class, gave a mini-exam the second class and kept the seven students with the lowest scores after the third class and told them that their performance was unacceptable and they might want to either pick it up or drop the class. Word got around quick and the exam averages went up, but I may have been a little harsh. They did learn the material, but I was not going to get much consideration for a Brown Award.
I also found that sometimes I would make a wisecrack or joke about something we were discussing or something I was teaching and some of the one-liners got some good laughs. I remembered some of those for the next semester got the same laughs and over the years got a pretty decent routine going as my recycled but growing and tried-and-tested funny material continued to get laughs. I still expect high standards, the students learn, but I think I made class a bit more fun and kept the students engaged in a different way, so I think I am more likely to be described as irreverent and engaging than intense. Whatever the methods used, I like to think the students always felt I really wanted them to learn and that I cared about their life post-Rice and that I wanted to help get them where they were meant to be however I could.
If I had to pick out the biggest difference between teaching today and when I first started it might be that the age gap has increased between me and my captive audience in class as my students are getting born later and later into the late 20th and early 21st century. My own experiences in the sport industry occurred in many cases before the students were born, so any story I share might as well have been during Vietnam or the Civil War. The students don't know the names of athletes, seasons, iconic moments, or if they do know of it, it was a long, long time ago, like when their parents were young. I have to update stories that involve current athletes or teams to keep them engaged so I don't come across too much like the old fossil lecturing from the front of the room.
The one constant is the students are smart, love to learn, and the effort you put into working for the students is well worth the time. I think all of us feel lucky to be teaching here.
When I started teaching college students 30 years ago, the world was a far more formal place, and the tools for accessing knowledge were more traditional — today, these methods would look archival. At the time, teaching was largely hierarchical, and much time was spent transmitting a fixed body of canonical knowledge to passive listeners.
This past generation has witnessed a revolution, both in knowledge production and in students’ learning styles. I have found that successful teaching is now a far more dynamic, creative and collaborative proposition. At the end of each semester, my students and I reflect on the subjects and approaches that they feel are most relevant and valuable, both for themselves and for those who will follow. Successful teaching is all about such careful listening, while creating new pathways of inquiry, and while always expressing gratitude for the gift of our time together.
Over the years, my approach to effective teaching has incorporated traditional pedagogy with the new methodologies. In light of technological advancements and recent cultural contexts such as the pandemic, my students today are able to take advantage of additional group activities, improved handouts for deriving solutions to the models, and access to Zoom links for lectures.
Additionally, the implementation of mid-semester evaluations enables my students to provide course specific feedback, which I use to understand their level and type of learning. These methods allow me to curate the subject content with a teaching style that maximizes the students' overall success. I make an enormous effort to create a classroom atmosphere the students enjoy and in which they feel comfortable engaging in questions and subject matter dialogue.
My ultimate goal is for the students to gain a thorough understanding of the learning objectives and develop a genuine love for learning economics. My heart is filled with joy when my students keep me updated on their success after completing my course.
In 12 years of teaching at Rice, one major change is in one of my misconceptions that knowing the content well and delivering it smoothly is enough. Well, it is not! Even a perfect lecture does not give 100% content transfer to students. There are multiple aspects that affect student learning I need to take into account in every class time and out-of-class time as well.
Utilizing the class time with student-to-student interactions and discussions on math significantly facilitates the learning. Moreover, this interactive class environment results in more fruitful learning outcomes, and students finish the course with more courage and enthusiasm to pursue more challenging mathematical concepts.
We have a wider array of communication technologies now than in 1994, when I started as a history and gender studies professor. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of showing the will to communicate.
The students arrive in the classroom as strangers to me. We have only fleeting moments each week to discuss works of life-changing importance and to get to know how each of us thinks. My challenge is to get us to that focused listening and telling that is real communication, amid the distractions and pressures of our lives. That often means shutting down tech in class while using it in new ways outside of class.
In my time at Rice, I have had the opportunity to grow and develop as an instructor, and have hopefully continued to improve with experience. One key to my success has been flexibility. Understanding how different students learn and being flexible to offer different approaches have been particularly important. Others include offering time, patience and support to students. While having a strong grasp of the material being taught to students is important, it does not guarantee success in transferring that knowledge effectively to your students. Thus, flexibility is key to allowing for both student growth and, just as importantly, growth as a teacher or mentor.
As we start moving past the pandemic, the world of teaching and learning has transformed in many ways. The need to be flexible has taken on an entirely different meaning. To be successful as an instructor now takes more than our previous approaches to teaching, but also being more able to understand our students on a further, more human level.
With the shift to online learning, students were exposed to significantly non-traditional ways of learning, sometimes offering great benefits such as recorded lectures and an opportunity for students to ask questions through chat rather than verbally in class. In contrast, however, these technologies also took the social aspect of learning out, delayed questions in class for others, and limited some instructors’ ability to provide feedback on the fly or do handwritten examples. These things changed the landscape of education for us all, and required the ultimate flexibility from instructors to be able to shift to a remote class if needed, prepare more accessible materials to students and be aware of the struggles that students face not just from their coursework but beyond.
As technology continues to evolve, I have also evolved by learning how to utilize the virtual landscape in the most advantageous way possible for my students. For example, I now host virtual office hours in addition to in-person office hours in order to prioritize my students' time. In addition, I now upload video recordings of problem-solving sessions to Canvas.
I aim to continue to utilize new online platforms and fresh technology to make my teaching accessible and fluid to different learning styles.