Kevin Eggan, associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, brings undergraduates to the frontiers of life science. David Elmer, assistant professor of the classics, takes students back through some of Western culture’s most ancient and honored texts. This year, the two members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) have something in common: They’re both winners of a 2011 Roslyn Abramson Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
“David Elmer and Kevin Eggan may have different areas of research, but they share a love of teaching,” said FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Each is an outstanding scholar who also has the ability to communicate knowledge in a way that ignites in students the passion that these faculty feel for their respective fields. They embody a Harvard education at its best. I offer my congratulations to David and Kevin for an honor well-deserved.”
The $9,500 award, established with a gift from Edward Abramson ’57 in honor of his mother, is given annually in recognition of “excellence and sensitivity in teaching undergraduates.” Recipients, drawn exclusively from FAS, are chosen on the basis of their ability to communicate with and inspire undergraduates, their accessibility, and their dedication to teaching.
Eggan’s popular undergraduate course, “Human Genetics: Mining Our Genomes for an Understanding of Human Variation and Disease,” teaches students some of the fundamentals of cellular biology through the lens of the developing and aging human body. Eggan says he tries to put the principles of life science into a context that people care most about: their health.
“We can learn a lot about biology from the things that go wrong with us,” Eggan says. “When there’s a congenital malformation — say, someone’s eyes are too close or too far apart — we have a chance to see what went wrong and to uncover the biology behind it. I try to show students how we use genetic thinking to solve biological problems and to identify what’s causing disease.”
Eggan says that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is the feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping students work through a difficult concept. Because undergraduates often approach a problem or idea for the first time in his class, their untrained eyes also provide new insights.
“Undergraduates always look at things with very fresh eyes,” he says. “When they look at something for the first time, they see it in a completely different way, unencumbered by the failures of others. It makes me look at things differently too.”
Some of those undergraduates may share the benefit of Eggan’s award this summer, as he plans to use the prize money to support researchers in his lab.
“More and more Harvard undergrads are excited about working in a lab over the summer and during the school year too,” he says. “It seems like there are always more students than money, so this will be a great way to supplement our funds.”
Elmer’s challenge in teaching the classics of ancient Greece and Rome is that undergraduates are both too far from and too close to the subject matter.
“It is always challenging to get students to feel a sense of connection with a distant civilization,” he explains. “At the same time, I think many students feel a deceptive familiarity with the Greeks and Romans, since our own culture is pervaded by images and symbols of the ancient world. The real task is to get students to understand both what they have in common with ancient readers and writers, and the deep strangeness of the Greeks and Romans.”
Students’ encounters with the “strangeness” of Greek and Roman culture, Elmer says, also leads to teaching’s greatest reward: a “shared sense of wonder and excitement.”
“I think teaching provides the best opportunity to see the power of ideas in action,” he says. “There is really nothing more rewarding for me than seeing how undergraduates take up the ideas we discuss in the classroom and make them meaningful for their own lives and experience.”
Elmer realizes that few of his students will go on to be classics professors, but rankles at what he calls the “pernicious tendency” in education to define the value of knowledge exclusively by its workplace potential.
“I happen to be very committed to the ideals of the traditional liberal arts education, which values the cultivation of thinking for its own sake,” he says. “I believe that the quality of our daily lives is directly related to the richness of our mental lives. Classics is particularly well suited to developing such richness, and can be a model for how to come to a deep understanding by applying a potentially unlimited set of methods and perspectives. This is a valuable skill that can readily be transferred to all areas of life.”
As for the award money, Elmer says that he hopes to hire an undergraduate assistant to help with research and course development, not just to help shoulder some of the workload, but also to provide him with another opportunity to teach.
“Research assistantships are, I think, another form of teaching,” he says. “Research not only guides teaching by providing the raw material for what happens in the classroom; it also helps to draw students into the pursuit of knowledge. Students really respond to the challenge and excitement of an open research question. In fact, in teaching as well as in research, I think it could be said that the presentation of a problem is often more important than the presentation of the solution. Assistantships are a great way to integrate the University’s teaching and research missions.”