Campus & Community

Teaching excellence honored at College

6 min read

Lecturers, preceptors, TAs in the spotlight

When Benedict Gross was a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard, there was no Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Teaching fellows who wanted to know what was the most effective way to help undergraduates understand their course work were pretty much on their own.

“My preparations for teaching consisted of someone handing me a box of chalk, a calculus textbook, and pointing me in the direction of the classroom,” Gross said.

Now the George Vasmer Leverett Professor of Mathematics and dean of Harvard College, Gross was one of those on hand April 25 to celebrate excellent undergraduate instruction at Harvard. The occasion was a reception at University Hall for the 320 teaching fellows, teaching assistants, preceptors, and lecturers receiving certificates of teaching excellence for their work in the fall semester 2006.

“The number of awards seems like a lot,” said James Wilkinson, the Bok Center director. “But you have to remember that the winners were selected from more than 2,000 candidates.”

The certificates were based on undergraduate course evaluations administered at the end of each term by the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE). In order to qualify for the certificates, candidates must receive an overall CUE result of 4.5 with five or more student responses.

In her remarks, Theda Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said that a larger proportion of the graduate teaching fellows receive high marks on their teaching than do the faculty.

She also proclaimed the start of what she called “a wonderful new tradition at Harvard,” namely the announcement of the first five recipients of the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates.

“It’s our hope that these awards will help change the institutional culture at Harvard to better reward teaching and advising,” she said.

Interim President Derek Bok spoke briefly about the new teaching awards, each of which includes a $1,000 cash prize, made possible through a gift by David G. Nathan ’51, M.D. ’55 and his wife Jean Louise Friedman Nathan. David Nathan is the Robert A. Stranahan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

“This gift does not stand alone,” Bok said. “It is part of an effort to respond to a need. Teaching is always at risk in a research university where the rewards are more visible for research and less tangible for teaching. There’s no silver bullet to remedy the situation, no single way to lift the level of pedagogy. Rather, we must do many things at once to achieve a cumulative effect.”

The recipients of the Bok awards were Rachel Eaton, Paul Edlefsen, Jennifer Ferriss, Kelly Heffner, and Brandon Tilley.

In 2006 Eaton, a Ph.D. student in psychology, created and taught the seminar “Memory Across the Lifespan,” for which she received a certificate of distinction in teaching from the Bok Center. She also received the George W. Goethals Teaching Prize for creating and teaching a sophomore tutorial introducing undergraduates to contemporary research.

Eaton has also supervised undergraduate research assistants and served as an academic adviser to many undergraduates. She was the graduate student representative on the Psychology Department’s Committee for Undergraduate Instruction, and the chair of the Graduate Student Steering Committee for Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative. She has been involved with the Bok Center’s biannual teaching conferences, running sessions on “creating your own course,” teaching tutorials, and leading discussions in the social sciences.

Edlefsen, a Ph.D. student in statistics, was nominated for the Levinson Teaching Prize for serving as a teaching fellow in the course “Uncertainty and Statistical Reasoning.” He was also a teaching fellow for an upper-level undergraduate course, “Introduction to Stochastic Processes,” earning a strong CUE score overall. He also created a handbook for statistics teaching fellows and co-presented a session on teaching in the sciences for the fall Bok Center Teaching Conference.

This year Edlefsen served as a Lead Teaching Fellow in Statistics. Department chair Xiao-Li Meng wrote that Edlefsen “has no peer” for his contributions to and influence on the overall quality of teaching in the department and in the Core. He added that Edlefsen “excels in creating a welcoming environment where questions are encouraged and good lines of communication are always open. I have never known any graduate student who is as passionate, devoted, and effective as Paul in training and motivating other students to become effective TFs.”

Ferriss, a Ph.D. student in classics, has taught in three different intensive language courses in Greek and Latin over two terms, for which she received perfect CUE ratings. She also received a high rating for teaching in “History of Latin Literature.”

One student taking “Beginning Greek” said that Ferriss “identifies well with her students, both in her sensitive understanding of where a student’s difficulties with the material might lie and in her warm personality.” Another student in “Beginning Latin” wrote that Ferris’ teaching stood out “because of what she added to the standard course material — from humorous stories about Cicero’s attempts to write his own epic, to brief lessons in linguistics — that allowed her students to appreciate the history and charm of the Latin language.” Another wrote, “In addition to being funny, generous, and fair, she … had a superb command of the material … [and] spent numerous hours cheerfully answering my questions about undecipherable forms in Plautus and gnarly grammar in Cicero.”

Heffner, a Ph.D. student in engineering and applied sciences, has taught in some of the most important courses for concentrators in the program. She was head TF for Computer Science 50, “Introduction to Computer Science,” a large course serving students in applied math and engineering, as well as in the physical and biological sciences. Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti, along with Professors Michael Smith and Howard Stone, have called Heffner the “go-to person” for students experiencing difficulties with the course.

In evaluations, Heffner’s students have commented that she “makes you feel comfortable asking questions,” that she “took things from lecture and taught them so we’d know how to use them when we needed to,” and, finally, that “her knowledge is phenomenal.”

Tilley, a Ph.D. student in English and American literature and language, served as a teaching fellow for a course in medieval studies with Nicholas Watson, who called Tilley one of the most successful TFs in the department and “one of the most versatile, with a remarkable range of material at his fingertips and an equally remarkable mastery of the various modes of teaching available in our department, from leading section to lecturing to running junior tutorials to co-supervising junior and senior theses.” Watson added that Tilley is “the kind of teacher who will change the direction of students’ lives and minds in the future.”

Tilley also co-supervised an honors thesis and his work led English Department Chair James Engell to credit him with being a “superb tutor, critic, and support” for undergraduates.