Assistant Professor of Linguistics Cedric Boeckx and Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Robin Kelsey have been awarded this year’s Roslyn Abramson Award for outstanding undergraduate teaching.
Boeckx and Kelsey share a passion for undergraduate teaching, saying it’s a critically important task. Both credited their success in the classroom to influential teachers in their pasts as well as to the assistance of fellow faculty members and teaching fellows.
The award is given each spring to “a faculty member in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his or her excellence and sensitivity in teaching undergraduates.” It is accompanied by a grant that can be used for either summer salary or research.
Kelsey, who holds a law degree from Yale University and a doctorate in history of art and architecture from Harvard, said he was thrilled when he found out he had won the award and that he views undergraduate teaching as a “vital” part of his work at Harvard. Kelsey, who is being promoted to associate professor in July, was named an assistant professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard in 2001.
“Robin Kelsey, associate professor of history of art and architecture, specializes in the history of photography and American art. In courses such as ‘Constructing Reality: Photography as Fact and Fiction,’ Professor Kelsey teaches his students to analyze images and to provide aesthetic and historical interpretation: to see and to understand what they see,” Kirby said.
Kelsey credited his own success to his teaching fellows and faculty colleagues from whom he draws inspiration. He said his first model teacher, however, sat across from him at the family dinner table each night. His mother, Cynthia Cone, was a professor of anthropology, now emerita, at Hamline University and won a national teaching award, Kelsey said.
“You can be engaging and intellectually serious at the same time,” Kelsey said of his teaching. “I have a background in debate and law and always try to leave my students with an argument.”
Boeckx, who received a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Connecticut in 2001, came to Harvard as an assistant professor in 2003. He had been a visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland.
“Cedric Boeckx, assistant professor of linguistics, teaches both Core and departmental courses about linguistic theory and the ways language illuminates the workings of the human brain,” Kirby said. “He has written a book called ‘Islands and Chains,’ and as a teacher of undergraduates, Professor Boeckx has forged links with his students and created an archipelago of learning in his classes.”
One of the keys to teaching for Boeckx is that he treats students with respect, regardless of their level of knowledge in his classes. He said his own teaching style is a mixture of things he picked up from his own teachers over the years, tips from colleagues, and techniques he’s developed himself.
“My own role as a teacher, head tutor, and adviser is to make sure all my students have access to the richest possible environment for learning and discovering,” Boeckx said. “My role is not to dictate what the students work on, but to make their work a success. This means, first and foremost, giving them feedback on the feasibility and importance of their work.”
Boeckx said he was deeply honored by the award and that it is the result of teamwork. He credited senior faculty who have helped him, teaching fellows, deans who’ve supported his teaching efforts, and those involved in the Menschel Pilot Program on Teaching in the Humanities, a summer workshop to develop new courses and teaching techniques.
Boeckx also said he learned a lot about being a good teacher – and the effort that it takes – from a professor in graduate school.
“One of my teachers in graduate school, Howard Lasnik, was a distinguished university professor who spent days and nights in the office, helping everybody, making sure everybody had an opportunity to learn,” Boeckx said. “I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t seen him put so much time and energy into building a department, teaching, and advising, I would not be doing it here.”