Campus & Community

Six faculty named Harvard College Professor

8 min read

The professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences are a busy bunch. Whether teaching undergraduate seminars or engaging in cutting-edge research, advising senior theses or presiding at international conferences, faculty members regularly balance a variety of professional responsibilities.

Harvard College Professorships honor the achievements of those who, in addition to their research activities, have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching and have made significant contributions to advising and mentoring students.

Six faculty members have been named Harvard College Professors this spring. They are Virginie Greene, professor of Romance languages and literatures; David Laibson, professor of economics; Douglas Melton, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences; Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology; John Shaw, Harry C. Dudley Professor of Structural and Economic Geology; and James Simpson, Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English.

“The broadening of a student’s mind is both a teacher’s greatest obligation and greatest reward,” says Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. “All six of our new Harvard College Professors exhibit a passion to share the fruits of their research and wisdom; moreover, all have shown limitless creativity and energy in imparting their knowledge. On behalf of the entire FAS, I thank Professors Greene, Laibson, Melton, Pinker, Shaw, and Simpson for their outstanding contributions to our community.”

The five-year appointments provide support for professional development, either in the form of research funding or summer salary. There are a total of 24 Harvard College Professorships. The appointments were established in 1997 with support from a gift made by John and Frances Loeb.

“These six scholars are all deeply committed and dedicated to undergraduate teaching in the broadest sense,” says David Pilbeam, dean of Harvard College and Henry Ford II Professor of Human Evolution. “Some have spearheaded curricular development; some have contributed mightily to the Harvard College Curricular Review; some have set up advising programs in their home departments. All have made significant and profound contributions to the education of our students.”

For Virginie Greene, literary analysis is akin to travel.

“It seems to me that reading and being somewhere else are similar experiences,” she says. Greene, who teaches courses on French medieval literature, aims to offer her students a passport to the past.

“I feel most rewarded when students discover texts that speak to them across time and space,” she says. “I consider my task as primarily awakening and fostering students’ curiosity about the ways humans use language, and the ways language has a life of its own.”

In addition to the history of the French language, Greene’s research interests include early Romance poetry, subjectivity in Arthurian romance, and the concept of ambivalence in the philosophy and literature of the Middle Ages.

Greene says she is “quite surprised” to be selected as a Harvard College Professor.

“I was not expecting to receive this distinction so early in my career,” she says. “I still have much to learn about teaching — I am still figuring out how best I can adapt my scholarly expertise to undergraduate and graduate education.”

David Laibson says that teaching is his first priority, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t leave time for research. However, he does feel that giving a good lecture is the most satisfying aspect of what he does.

“Knowledge is always in flux and the next generation will surely improve on whatever imperfect insights I can now offer,” says Laibson. “I encourage my students to see themselves as potential contributors who will take the next step forward.”

This year, Laibson has taught undergraduate lecture courses such as “Psychology and Economics,” and seminars such as “Behavior and Experimental Economics,” “Economic Theory,” and “Research in Behavior Games and Markets.”

“I am passionate about my role as a teacher,” says Laibson. “Harvard has so many wonderful teachers on the faculty and it is a great honor to be chosen from this amazing and inspirational group.”

One of the nation’s most prominent stem cell researchers, Douglas Melton says right now it’s especially thrilling to be teaching developmental biology and stem cell biology.

“It’s a very exciting time in my field: The connection between stem cells and development raises new possibilities for enhancing our lives and combating disease,” he says. “At the same time, these new possibilities raise important ethical and moral questions, providing an opportunity for students to apply their studies in philosophy and government to biological and medical questions.”

This year, Melton has explored that tension in a course called “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature,” team-taught with Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government.

“I’ve learned much by teaching with Michael, one of the College’s very best teachers,” Melton says, “and the team-teaching is fun for the two of us and the students as we cross or span the traditional boundaries of different disciplines.”

Praising both Harvard’s science and nonscience concentrators as “lively,” Melton says he especially enjoys teaching freshmen and sophomores, who are often exploring new subjects and bring a fresh and open mind to the classroom.

“As a research scientist, I find that having to explain why one is studying a particular problem, such as how the pancreas is made, helps keep me focused on the larger questions and not get lost in details,” he says.

Melton will use his Harvard College Professorship to create an introductory course in the new developmental biology concentration.

“Teaching always ends up as my priority,” he says. “My lab knows that when I’m teaching, it’s much harder to get my attention on a new experiment because I’m fretting over my next lecture.”

“I try to share my own excitement with the ideas of my field,” says Steven Pinker. “The very ideas that got me into the field in the first place, that make me get up in the morning looking forward to my work — those are the ones I most want to share with students. To me, sharing knowledge is part of the pleasure of having it — doing research just to satisfy my curiosity would be like stealing a Rembrandt and hanging it in a secret room where only I could view it.”

Pinker says that he is delighted to have received this honor and that he finds teaching Harvard College students satisfying because of their intellectual curiosity, breadth of interests, and willingness to put mental effort into understanding difficult concepts.

Courses taught in the current year include “The Human Mind,” as part of the Core Curriculum, as well as a seminar titled “Language and Human Nature.”

“I see teaching as part of the process of understanding,” says Pinker. “You only really understand something when you can explain it to someone else.”

Reached last week before leaving for a field trip with students in the northern Appalachians, John Shaw said, “I simply feel blessed to have an opportunity to teach and mentor Harvard undergraduates. They are simply the best, and I feel a profound obligation to always put forward my best effort in teaching and advising.”

Employed as a geologist in the petroleum industry before joining the Harvard faculty 11 years ago, Shaw now teaches “Earth Resources” and “The Environment and Structural Geology and Tectonics.” He also regularly leads field trips for Harvard students to study geology, including trips to such places as the Canadian Rockies for all Earth and planetary sciences concentrators.

He says balancing teaching with his research on energy exploration and earthquake hazards in urban areas such as Los Angeles “is always a challenge, but no aspect of the job is more rewarding than working with students. Continuously revising and improving courses keeps it fresh, for both students and myself.”

Shaw will use his Harvard College Professorship to do just that, altering one of his current course offerings to serve the College’s new general education curriculum and integrating more hands-on experiences into introductory courses in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, of which he is chair.

James Simpson brings the Middle Ages to life for students in the English Department. His courses, on topics ranging from Arthurian literature to the history of the image in late medieval and early modern England, demonstrate a fluency with and a passion for historical texts. But Simpson is equally focused on the present — in particular, the importance of developing effective student-teacher relationships.

“Education works best in high-fidelity environments,” he says, “when teachers trust students to meet challenges with all they’ve got, and students trust teachers to lead them out to places of refreshment and illumination. Harvard is a high-fidelity environment.”

Simpson says that the Harvard College Professorship is a “wholly unexpected, not to say unimagined” honor.

“I am, in equal measure, delighted and humbled by this award,” he says. “Harvard accentuates teaching in ways unlike any other university I have taught in. Teaching really matters here, and students understand that. In four years of teaching here I have yet to meet one student who wasn’t ready to meet the challenges I offered.”