Campus & Community

Five honored as Harvard College Professors

7 min read

In this 10th anniversary year of the prestigious Harvard College Professorships, five FAS faculty members have been honored for their particularly distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching, advising, and mentoring.

The five professors receiving the good news in recent days are Luis Fernández-Cifuentes, the Robert S. and Ilse Friend Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures; David Haig, the George Putnam Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies; David Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology; and Peter Marsden, professor of sociology.

The five-year Harvard College Professorships support professional development through research funding, a semester of paid leave, or summer salary. There are a total of 24 Harvard College Professorships, established in 1997 with support from a gift made by John and Frances Loeb.

Luis Fernández-Cifuentes

For Luis Fernández-Cifuentes, teaching is “an incredibly emotional experience,” even after 30 years.

“When class is good, I’m happy for the rest of the day,” he says. “If it’s bad, I feel doomed. That’s why I always try to engage students to the utmost.”

Cifuentes’ courses run the gamut of Spanish literature and culture from the 18th century to the present day, with a particular focus on modernity.

In order to engage students, Cifuentes creates a classroom atmosphere centered around conversation and interaction.

“I’ve moved from lecture courses to courses that are entirely devoted to dialogue,” he says. “Even when I have upwards of 20 or 30 students, I find it important to have a back-and-forth rhythm with my students.”

The rhythm of Cifuentes’ daily life is fairly hectic as he balances time in the classroom with a busy family life and administrative responsibilities as chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

“Sometimes things get a little schizophrenic and it’s not easy to take care of things in a harmonious manner, but if you take care of your priorities first, you can find a way to manage,” he says.

Cifuentes was entirely surprised to be named a Harvard College Professor.

“I felt totally overwhelmed,” he says. “I was thinking about all of my other colleagues who are extraordinary teachers and didn’t know why I had been selected. I felt very humble.”

“Luis Cifuentes deftly guides his students through the complexities of Spanish identity, whether scrutinizing Spain’s literary and cultural history or decoding the meanings of Spanish modernity,” says David Pilbeam, Henry Ford II Professor of Human Evolution and interim dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “For his nimble intellect and the warmth and care he shows his students, he justly deserves this Harvard College Professorship.”

David Haig

Evolutionary biologist David Haig, who teaches “Vertebrate Viviparity” and “Genomic Imprinting and Parent-Offspring Conflict,” is fascinated by situations where an organism’s genome fights itself.

Mammalian pregnancy is a classic, and generally underappreciated, example of such an intragenomic clash: The more nutrients a mother supplies her fetus, the less she herself receives — so generally speaking, the genes a fetus receives from its mother tend to ultimately favor the mother’s survival. Paternally derived genes, on the other hand, are more likely to favor fetal nourishment at the expense of the pregnant mother.

In his courses, Haig tries to communicate his own enthusiasm and to use interesting examples from the natural world — such as pregnancy’s subtle war of the sexes — to communicate general principles to his students.

“It was a very pleasant surprise to be named a Harvard College Professor,” Haig says. “I plan to use the distinction to develop a course on human genetics and reproduction for nonscience concentrators.”

“David Haig ‘imprints’ on his students his energetic pursuit of a subject, the joy of his wide-ranging intellect, and his attentiveness to people in his care,” Pilbeam says. ”For the many ways he contributes to the learning and well-being of our students, I congratulate him on this honor.”

Jennifer Hochschild

“My job is to convey a wide array of ideas, analytic concepts, facts, methods of understanding empirical evidence, and broad normative or philosophical premises — and then to encourage the students to figure out which of these they find most compelling and why,” says Jennifer Hochschild. “In addition, I want students to make connections between the material they are studying and their own lives or events in the world around them — but always to resist reductionism or assumptions that their own experience or viewpoint can stand in for that of the rest of the world.”

This year, courses that Hochschild has taught include a lecture class, “Race, Ethnicity and Politics in the United States,” and the graduate seminar “Power in American Society.” Hochschild studies American political philosophy, race, and educational policy.

“Students keep me young, and constantly on my toes, so it’s great to receive an award that celebrates education,” Hochschild says.

“By elucidating the connections between race, politics, and education, Jennifer Hochschild not only teaches and inspires, she builds a better citizenry,” Pilbeam says. “The Harvard College Professorship honors her deep commitment to her students.”

David Liu

“When I first received notice of this honor, I couldn’t help but think that it’s funny that faculty members can receive an award for doing what is one of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of our jobs,” says David Liu, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Given that teaching undergraduate and graduate students is arguably the most important work that we perform as faculty members, it means a great deal to me to receive this distinction.”

Since joining the Harvard faculty in 1999, Liu has taught “Chemical Biology” and “Organic Chemistry of Life.” He is also a co-creator — with Daniel Kahne of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Robert Lue, Douglas Melton, Andrew Murray, and Erin O’Shea of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology — of “Life Sciences 1a,” a two-year-old course that is now Harvard’s largest natural science offering. This class, which enrolled some 620 undergraduates last fall, combines key components of general chemistry, organic chemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology into an integrated introduction to the life sciences.

“Given how my experiences as a former undergraduate at Harvard have shaped the rest of my life, it is easy to feel a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to teaching Harvard students,” says Liu, who will use the award to fund technologies to enhance his research and teaching activities. “The fact that Harvard students, both at the undergraduate level and graduate-student level, can bring enormous energy, insight, and raw talent to the classroom makes it especially enjoyable to teach here.”

“David Liu’s energy and creativity know no bounds,” Pilbeam says. ”His highly innovative research is matched by a zeal to share his knowledge with others. He genuinely believes that a student’s process of discovery is a teacher’s greatest reward. We thank him for his outstanding contributions to our community.”

Peter Marsden

“Of the many distinctive things about this University, Harvard College students are perhaps the very most distinctive,” says Peter Marsden. “Their unusual ability, level of interest, and energy make teaching here a special pleasure — and an enlivening challenge. Their vitality is remarkable.”

Marsden says that one of the advantages of teaching at Harvard is that he is able to integrate his research into the classroom. For example, in many of his courses, students analyze data collected by a social survey project for which Marsden is an investigator.

“Much of my teaching is about the use of quantitative methods in social science research, a subject that lends itself to learning by doing, and to active engagement with course content through exercises,” says Marsden.

Classes taught in the current year include a seminar class called “Analysis of Longitudinal Data” and two lecture classes, “Quantitative Methods in Sociology” and “Intermediate Quantitative Methods.” Marsden’s scholarly work is centered on social organization (including health care organization), social networks, and survey research.

“Himself an expert on organizational behavior and social networks, Peter Marsden has poured his energies into building strong ties to his students and creating a lively intellectual community,” Pilbeam says. “His passion for his subject, and for teaching, truly merit this latest honor.”