Campus & Community

Seven Faculty Members Selected As Harvard College Professors

8 min read

Seven of Harvard’s most committed undergraduate teachers have been named this year’s Harvard College Professors. These appointments, established three years ago by a gift from John Loeb, SB ’24, LLD ’71 (hon.) and Frances Lehman Loeb, honor outstanding service to undergraduate education.

The five-year chair comes with support for professional development: either a semester of paid leave, commensurate summer salary, or a fund to support scholarly research. Eighteen Harvard College Professors have been named so far.

“I am delighted to be able to recognize another group of wonderful contributors to the educational experience of our undergraduates,” said Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the Faculty Arts and Sciences.

The recipients are chosen based on student evaluations, work in tutorials, service on thesis committees, and participation in other committees devoted to undergraduate education, said William Todd, dean of undergraduate education.

William Gienapp, professor of history, grew up among teachers. His mother taught grade school, and his father, high school.

“I’ve always thought that people teach the way they wanted to be taught when they were students,” he said. “I don’t waste any time. We start, and we go to the end, and I try to convey information during the entire 50 minutes, and the lectures build on one another. So students need to think about not just that day’s material or that week’s reading, but how everything in the course links up to an overall view of the period or the problem they’re studying.”

Gienapp specializes in 19th-century American history, especially the Civil War. He is also known for his course, Baseball in American Society. Changes in the game reflect changes in American social history, Gienapp said.

He recalled his first set of evaluations as an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming.

“The first evaluation said that I was so bad that I should be fired,” Gienapp said. “And I was very pleased that the second evaluation said that I was an absolute genius. Unfortunately, the student misspelled the word genius.”

Peter Hall, Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, said, “My approach is to treat the classroom as a site for mutual learning, one in which the students are my colleagues and more or less equal co-conspirators in the search to figure out what is true.”

Hall has taught European politics, comparative politics, and comparative political economy at Harvard since his graduate student days. He credited Harvard professors Stanley Hoffmann and Samuel Beer for most influencing his teaching.

“Hoffmann delivers seamless lectures with extraordinary nuance that I could never match, while Beer raised big questions and more or less thought aloud about them as he tried to find an answer. But both have been deeply committed to teaching undergraduates. And they taught me the value of that, as well as the importance of using history to address large political issues, and the ones that matter to people’s lives.”

Several years ago, Hall walked into a classroom prepared to lecture on the causes of the French Revolution. He had been having doubts about his analysis, doubts which crystallized when he faced the students.

“I realized I could not support the analysis I was about to propose. So I ended up telling the class why I could not deliver the lecture, why there were too many unanswered questions in the approach. And I learned from that experience that it’s even more important to raise questions than to provide answers.”

Jay Harris, Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies, specializes in both ancient and modern Jewish thought, history, and law. His Core course, “If there is no God, all is permitted”: Theism and Moral Reasoning, helps students consider the relation between the concept of God and individual moral achievement.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that teaching is really a critical part of scholarship,” Harris said. “If you cannot explain it to someone else, then you don’t quite have it yourself.”

He recalled a pivotal conversation with Judah Goldin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We had one really long talk one day, and he was known as a master teacher. The amazing thing he said was, never, ever teach what you don’t like. They’ll always know it. Even if the technique is good, they’ll know that it’s not you, and don’t do it.”

“I love what I do, and I’m glad for the chance to do it,” Harris said.

Thomas Kelly, chair of the music department, has honed his teaching skills over a lifetime.

“I was a faculty child in Chapel Hill [N.C.], and I’ve never been out of school,” he said. “My children figure that I’m now in the fifty-first grade.

“Most of what I’ve learned about teaching I learned from watching Sesame Street,” he said jokingly. “I’ve learned that small intense packages with a lot of variety can be one good way of keeping people’s attention.”

In his Core course, First Nights: Five Performance Premieres, Kelly hums, plays piano, dramatizes the music, and also packs his lectures with information about the social and historical context in which famous pieces of classical music premiered.

“What’s great about teaching is sharing enthusiasm, having the opportunity to talk at length about something you care passionately about,” he said.

“I’m delighted to be honored; I’m sure the Harvard College Professorship exists as much to encourage people to be aware of the quality of teaching and the importance of undergraduate teaching as it is to honor the people who from time to time get named Harvard College Professors.”

Richard Losick, Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology, sees teaching as a natural extension of his work as a researcher in molecular biology. “By its nature, science involves extensive collaboration and interaction, and communicating clearly and effectively is at a premium,” he said.

For Introductory Molecular Biology, Losick distributes his lecture material in advance, so students can focus on thinking in class, not transcribing. He interrupts his class presentations with intellectual challenges for the class.

He is also exploring the role of animation in teaching. With former students, Losick has created animation sequences that show processes like DNA replication more effectively than the traditional static diagrams.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is teaching,” Losick said. “I was thrilled and surprised when I heard the news.”

Howard Stone, Gordon McKay Professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, deflected attention from himself and instead spoke enthusiastically about others.

“I’ve always had extremely supportive colleagues,” he said. “When I came here, one of my colleagues, John Hutchinson, gave me his notes [for a course Stone would be teaching], and they are an unbelievable set of notes. And his ideas grew out of a course taught by Professor George Carrier and Professor Bernie Budiansky.”

Stone, who specializes in fluid mechanics, praised his first chemistry teacher in college, several chemical engineering and applied math teachers, also at the University of California at Davis, a Ph.D. advisor at the California Institute of Technology, and a phalanx of colleagues at Cambridge University, “the mecca for fluid dynamics.”

He credited his students for making teaching enjoyable: “They have been a source of questions, insights, and continued learning for me.”

The following quote, he said, summarizes his philosophy of teaching:

“‘The sickness of man lies in his fondness for playing teacher to others. Thus in a world full of gurus, I claim merely the title of a guide, to be dismissed at the end of the journey.’”

Maria Tatar, John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, said of the Harvard College Professorship, “It’s the most meaningful award I’ve ever received. Teaching is the most rewarding part of my professional life.”

Tatar, who began teaching German literature, folklore, and children’s literature at Harvard almost 30 years ago, said she felt like a “big sister” to her students when she started teaching. “And over the years you develop parental instincts toward the students. I do feel this very powerful sense of mission, helping students move through their undergraduate careers, which are four very intense years. And I see myself as a mentor and as an advocate for the students.”

Her role models, she said, were teachers like Theodore Ziolkowski (her dissertation advisor at Princeton) who showed “their openness to one-on-one discussion, their availability outside the classroom, and generally their willingness to go the last mile for every student in the course.”

She spoke of the bittersweet end to each semester. “There’s this wonderful moment of feeling very bonded with the students at the same time that I always have a tremendous sense of separation anxiety. We’re all joined by a sense of accomplishment and achievement, having worked through some tough material. We know we’re going to separate, but we all have had this experience together.”