Teaching fellow Zahr Said changes the way her students think. Benjamin Friedman, a professor of economics, once visited a student in the hospital to help her catch up on class work. Mathematics preceptor Dale Winter makes sure all his students understand calculus, no matter how long he must stay after class.
For their dedication to the educational experience of Harvard undergraduates, Said, Winter, and Friedman received the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize from the Harvard Undergraduate Council (UC) at a dinner in Eliot House Wednesday (May 7).
“Sometimes at this great research university we can forget the importance of teaching,” said Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04. “It’s really good that we’re honoring people for their commitment to and contact with undergraduates.”
“It’s always important to remind faculty colleagues that if it weren’t for the students, we wouldn’t be here,” echoed William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).
Nearly 100 teachers – the prize goes to one teaching fellow, a nontenured faculty, and a senior faculty – and the students who nominated them packed Eliot House dining hall for the celebration, which Chopra said has grown substantially in the prize’s 21 years. Winners were selected on the thoughtfulness and passion, not volume, of the nominations, said Matt Mahan ’05, chair of the UC student affairs committee.
The prize honors Joseph R. Levenson ’41, a scholar of modern China who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, until his death in a boating accident in 1969. Kirby, himself a China scholar, called Levenson “a legend” in his academic field and as an educator.
“He was a great man who believed in the great unity of scholarship and teaching,” said Kirby.
Changing the way they think
Students who nominated Said, a teaching fellow in the history and literature concentration who just completed her own dissertation in comparative literature, commended her for encouraging intellectual curiosity.
“We never felt we were lectured to,” wrote one student. “We were led in discussions to our own conclusions.”
Another nominator wrote, “It is rare that you can credit a person with changing the way you think.”
Ella Steim ’05 commended Said’s sensitive style, saying the TF recognized Steim’s shyness and gently persuaded her to speak in class.
“She was as excited about my thesis as I was,” said Katie Robinson ’03, whose opus concerned skin bleaching in Ghana. “She put in ten times more work than would ever be required.”
The prize, created to honor teachers, ended up shining a positive light on students. Unsuccessfully choking back tears, Said said her students were “on fire.”
“Teaching in history and literature has been wonderful because I teach with people who care about teaching,” she said. “And the students in history and literature are unparalleled.”
Committed to calculus
Dale Winter received more than 30 nominations from students in his two-semester “Introduction to Calculus” course. At the awards ceremony, an entire table of his nominators – “We call ourselves ‘the denominators,'” joked Peter Scully ’06 – cheered him on.
Students hailed Winter’s dedication to their understanding of the challenges of calculus, many saying that under Winter’s tutelage, calculus became their favorite course.
“His main goal is to see his students succeed,” said one nominator, adding that Winter brought calculus alive by relating it to other fields.
“Dale has broken through all the barriers,” said Benedict Gross, dean of undergraduate education and professor of mathematics, acknowledging that calculus inspires more fear and dread than enthusiastic loyalty in its students. “You start out in calculus with one strike against you. Dale just hit it out of the park,” Gross added.
“I’m overcome with the emotion and the depth of feeling,” said Winter of his nominations. “My students are some of the best people I’ve ever met.”
The prof you dream of
For Friedman, too, it’s the students who push him to go beyond the call of duty, academically and personally.
“This is a golden age for Harvard undergraduates,” said the 30-year veteran of Harvard teaching, crediting the Admissions Office for delivering outstanding students to his classes. “Interacting with them, both in the classroom and outside, is a real pleasure.”
Students who nominated Friedman, many of them in his Economics 1480: “Moral Consequences of Economics” course, cited his teaching and his personal attention as distinct and outstanding. He reads all the papers himself and writes pages of responses, one student wrote.
“I’ve taken few classes that have allowed for such freedom of thought,” wrote another nominator.
“More than other professors that I’ve had, he addressed the total person in me,” said David Kessler ’04. “That’s what distinguishes him from others.”
Classmate (but not a relative) Judd Kessler ’04 gave his professor a succinct but powerful endorsement.
“When you dream of going to college, Professor Friedman is the professor you dream of having,” he said.