Campus & Community

Undergraduate teaching recognized

5 min read

Undergraduate teaching recognized

The old tradition of bringing an apple to class to thank the teacher may have long ago faded from popularity, but the notion of gratitude for first-rate instruction is alive and well at Harvard.

Every spring, the Roslyn Abramson Awards recognize assistant and associate professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching. The awards honor those who have shown devotion to education, inspired College students, and exhibited sensitivity to their students’ needs. Honorees receive a grant that can be used for either summer salary or research.

This year’s winners are Lisa Brooks, assistant professor of history and literature and of folklore and mythology, and David Parkes, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences.

“Lisa Brooks and David Parkes engage students with their unbridled enthusiasm for their subject matter,” says Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. “Their teaching is informed by a keen awareness of their students’ interests and grounded in the development of critical thinking skills that will serve their students well for years to come. I am delighted to congratulate these two remarkable teachers, scholars, and colleagues on receiving the Abramson Award.”

Lisa Brooks teaches courses in a range of sizes — lectures in the English Department, small folklore and mythology seminars, even one-on-one tutorials in the History and Literature Department. Regardless of the number of students, however, Brooks sees each course as a space for intellectual exchange.

“I learn as much, if not more, from my students as they do from me,” says Brooks. “I am grateful for the incredible collaborative teaching experience that I have had with the students here at Harvard, who have shared their sharp insights, challenging questions, and deep interest in thoughtful deliberation.”

Brooks draws her inspiration for intellectual exchange and debate from the University Charter of 1650.

“For me, being at an institution whose governing document is grounded in a commitment to the ‘education of the English and Indian youth of this country’ is highly significant,” she says. “Collaboration and exchange form the base of this commitment, to which many of us are actively engaged in holding ourselves accountable.”

Along with her colleague Malinda Maynor Lowery, assistant professor of history, Brooks has developed an interactive curriculum for Native American history and literature courses, which has enabled Harvard to foster collaborative teaching relationships with Native American leaders, scholars, and artists from across the country. She is also actively involved in the Harvard University Native American Program.

“Working with Native American communities in the region and beyond, and watching the interaction and learning that takes place between them and our students, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching here,” she says.

Like many professors, Brooks sometimes finds it challenging to balance teaching, research, organizing, and personal commitments. When she’s feeling overwhelmed, though, Brooks draws on solid reserves: the family members who “made it possible” for her to be here.

“My grandfather worked a double factory shift and a third job, while my grandmother worked full time as a cook, while raising seven children,” she says. “What I do is a privilege. When it gets tough, I think of them, and remember.”

Brooks says she is “truly honored by the award and grateful for the many opportunities that have been made available to [her] as a teacher and scholar.”

“My basic philosophy is that all students should be able to understand something if it is explained in the right way,” says David Parkes, who describes himself as “very surprised and honored” to receive the Roslyn Abramson Award.

Parkes says his goal when teaching courses — including “Electronic Transactions,” “Intelligent Machines,” and “Topics in Computer Science and Economics” — is to challenge and engage students at all levels by making material relevant and by giving some wider context.

“Teaching at Harvard is great fun and I feel so lucky to have the chance to inspire, and be inspired, by our wonderful students,” says Parkes, who has taught in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences since 2001. “It feels ridiculous, in part, to receive an award for doing something that is itself incredibly rewarding!”

He reports being energized by the diversity of motivations and perspectives among the College students in his courses. “This keeps me on my toes and drives me to try to present material in as broad a light as possible,” Parkes says.

Parkes experimented this semester in his “Introduction to Optimization” course with a number of novel ideas, including break-out sessions, open-ended assignments coupled with team presentations, partner work on small exercises in the classroom, and extremely interactive sections for review of concepts.

“I believe that we must continually reinvent teaching as modalities of learning and study change, and especially given the explosion of information that is readily available on the Internet,” he says. “I see [the Abramson Award] as an opportunity to rethink the goal of classroom teaching, which I believe must continue to evolve into a unique, engaging, and collaborative experience.”

How does he balance the competing demands of teaching, research, and other professional obligations?

“With difficulty!” he says, citing “plenty of coffee, good organization, amazing teaching fellows, and the best Ph.D. students anywhere.”