Harvard’s faculty is a treasured asset, composed of world-class scholars and gifted teachers. Each year, a few faculty members are named Harvard College Professors to recognize, in addition to their research activities, their excellence in undergraduate teaching and their contributions in advising and mentoring students.
Michael D. Smith, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), announced five new Harvard College Professors in 2015: Evelyn Hu, Tarr-Coyne Professor of Applied Physics and of Electrical Engineering; Elena M. Kramer, Bussey Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Maya Jasanoff, Coolidge Professor of History; Louis Menand, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English; and Robb Moss, chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
“Their inspired scholarship and enthusiasm for the craft of teaching is a gift both to their students and to Harvard,” Smith said.
The Harvard College Professorships began in 1997 through a gift from John and Frances Loeb. They are five-year appointments providing faculty with extra support for research or scholarly activities, a semester of paid leave, or summer salary. The professorships are one of several efforts dedicated to highlighting exceptional teaching at Harvard.
“I strive to find the unusual, the beautiful in the topics we cover in class.”
Hu teaches electrical engineering, and her research interests range from applied physics to environmental and mechanical engineering.
“It is critically important for students to have a chance to apply their hands and their minds to probing the physical world around us,” she said of the unusual challenges of teaching science and engineering. “The ability to design, measure, and make functional structures helps to transform book knowledge to their knowledge.”
Her enthusiasm for teaching is palpable. “As much as possible, I strive to find the unusual, the beautiful in the topics we cover in class — to identify underlying concepts that can take us from the topic being discussed to ways that might help us interpret the world now and in the future.”
“I’m pleased to be part of a university that recognizes the importance of undergraduate teaching.”
Jasanoff’s scholarly work centers on the history of modern Britain and British imperialism, but her versatility as a teacher extends well beyond her specialty. She co-teaches Humanities 52 with Niall Ferguson, for example, and is using her professorship award in part to mount a new interdisciplinary General Education course on the topic of ancestry.
“I’m pleased to be part of a university that recognizes the importance of undergraduate teaching,” Jasanoff said. “There’s an unfortunately widespread perception that professors at research universities don’t care much about undergraduates. In my experience that’s certainly not the case at Harvard, and these awards just go to show what a strong commitment the institution as well as the faculty have to excellent teaching.”
“Teaching is simply one of my favorite things to do.”
Kramer takes pleasure in introducing her students to a subject that surrounds them. She teaches the biology of plants, plant diversity, and plant development, and her scholarship uses molecular, morphological, and phylogenetic approaches to study how flowers have changed over time.
“I genuinely love plants,” Kramer said. “It’s terrific to be able to share that passion with students who may not normally give plants a second look as they walk around campus.”
Kramer said she doesn’t have any “special tricks” when it comes to teaching, and that it’s the little things that count.
“I maintain a sense of humor in the classroom and take every opportunity to engage with students one-on-one. Teaching is simply one of my favorite things to do.”
“We need always to be thinking critically, not defensively, about what we’re teaching and why.”
Menand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Metaphysical Club” (2002) and a longtime contributor to such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, likely could have his pick of academic posts. However, the authority on 19th- and 20th-century American cultural history chose Harvard in part to be involved in undergraduate education, especially curriculum development.
“In liberal education, we need always to be thinking critically, not defensively, about what we’re teaching and why,” he said. It’s a responsibility Menand takes seriously, as evidenced not only by the breadth of courses he teaches (for example, “Art in the Cold War” and “The Novel in Europe”) but also through his involvement with General Education reform at Harvard several years ago.
“It’s tremendously gratifying to feel I’ve had some impact,” Menand said of his new distinction. “I know that the Harvard College Professorship has always been awarded to faculty who truly deserve it, so I feel honored by the recognition.”
“The door shuts, the class begins, and I feel very lucky to be in the room.”
Acclaimed independent documentary filmmaker Moss has taught filmmaking at Harvard for 25 years, mentoring countless students, including several Academy Award nominees. Yet listening to him describe the happy anticipation he feels before each class reveals a freshness that defies his long tenure.
“This good feeling of anticipation is a result of the many years I have spent seeing wonderful work on the screen, knowing how hard it is to make films, and how difficult it can be to publicly share one’s work with your classmates and instructors. … The door shuts, the class begins, and I feel very lucky to be in the room.”
Moss said that teaching filmmaking is different because the students become the authors of the work their peers critique. This is why, he says, “at the core of what I teach is a belief that film authorship can be derived though the act of handling the expressive tools of production oneself — that one learns how to make films by making them.”