Their work ranges from understanding the cellular processes inhibited by antibiotics to the challenges of religious pluralism in a multi-religious society to the design of distributed open computer networks, but the five faculty members awarded Harvard College Professorships this week have one thing in common: their dedication to educating undergraduate students and helping them develop their intellectual passions.
The five, Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society and Master of Lowell House Diana Eck, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Jorie Graham, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology Daniel Kahne, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History Jill Lepore, and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science David Parkes, were named to the prestigious professorships on April 26 by Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean Michael D. Smith.
“First and foremost, Harvard is an institution dedicated to educating the next generation of leaders,” Smith said. “It is a pleasure to recognize Daniel Kahne, David Parkes, Jill Lepore, Jorie Graham, and Diana Eck, who are not only stars in their chosen fields, but true innovators in their teaching, dedicated to the sort of student engagement that has come to characterize the Harvard College experience.”
The professorships are one of a number of recent efforts aimed at underscoring the exceptional teaching that takes place in Harvard’s classrooms.
Earlier this year, FAS launched the Great Teachers video series to highlight exceptional FAS faculty members, while last year saw the creation of Conversations@FAS, a series of faculty panels in which participants shared best practices and innovative methods with fellow faculty and teaching staff.
Complementing those efforts was the University-wide Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) symposium held Feb. 3. The conference offered faculty and students the opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate, while sharing ideas and information about pedagogical innovation, and was developed as part of a $40 million gift from Rita E. and Gustave M. Hauser.
“Harvard has long been recognized as a leader in the world of scholarship, but it is also an institution of exceptional teachers,” Smith said. “Harvard College Professorships are just one of the ways we recognize great teaching at Harvard.”
The Harvard College Professorships are five-year appointments, begun in 1997 through a gift of John and Frances Loeb. They provide faculty with extra support for research or scholarly activities, a semester of paid leave or summer salary.
Each recipient said he or she was honored to receive the recognition, and all said their time in Harvard’s classrooms has been as much about learning as teaching.
Although she hasn’t yet considered how the Harvard College Professorship will impact her time in the classroom, Eck said her teaching is constantly evolving in response to the digital revolution, and the wealth of information it puts at students’ fingertips.
“My teaching has changed a great deal — images, visual arts, music, YouTube selections — all are so much easier to access, both in class and in student research,” she said. ????My research project, the Pluralism Project, has been developing Web-based tools for teaching for the past 20 years, including, most recently, layered Google maps on religious diversity of 20 American cities.”
Eck has also taken the unique approach of using the case study model pioneered at the Harvard Business School by applying it to religious dilemmas in contemporary America.
“I actually think this is the best teaching I have done at Harvard,” she said. “I learn a lot when developing lectures, and love doing it, but I’m trying to move away from that, so students can engage more in the classroom experience.”
While she has long seen the utility of bringing the digital world into the classroom, Eck said there is often no substitute for the value of face-to-face learning and experience.
“In some of my teaching, such as in my class ‘World Religions in Boston,’ I want students to move outside the Harvard classroom and explore the religious communities of the region,” she said. “With the help of our website on the religious communities of greater Boston, students can do more than read about Islam, Sikism, or Buddhism — they have living communities close enough to visit. Crossing the threshold of our immediate experience to become a guest in someone else’s religious community is a learning experience in itself.”
Though it’s continually challenging, Graham said the experience of being in a Harvard classroom is one she finds immensely rewarding.
“I find teaching to be spiritually and emotionally draining as well as nourishing,” she said. “I feel tested by each encounter — so much is at stake! And I come to deeply admire and cherish my students. It is a commonplace, but I do indeed learn so much from them.
“My approach to teaching is simple: I have never taught any class before,” Graham continued. “We reinvent the wheel each semester. The information we transfer back and forth, and handle, and tear into, and reconstitute, and add to — is in many ways the excuse that permits us to get closer to that knowledge which eludes us individually but which we can often reach as a community. I profoundly trust the discoveries made by the community of the class.”
While Graham said she is happy to receive the recognition that comes with a Harvard College Professorship, she said that the “victory” of seeing her students’ lives and work flourish is a communal effort that stretches far beyond the bounds of the classroom.
“[This award] makes me feel all the extra hours are not invisible — a good feeling — though of course I would not do things any differently were it not acknowledged,” said Graham. “It does, sweetly, in its way of singling one out even to one’s self, make one feel, to mangle Yeats’ words, that all “our stitching and unstitching has not been naught.” Though no award could give me the feeling I get from watching my students’ lives and work flourish and astonish. And that, of course, is never the outcome of one teacher’s work — all our victories are communal efforts — starting with the Admissions Office!”
For Kahne, teaching at Harvard has — literally — been a learning experience.
One of several professors who teach Life Sciences 1a, an interdisciplinary course that includes faculty from chemistry and chemical biology, biology, and molecular and cellular biology, Kahne said his colleagues have served as role models for his own teaching.
“Since coming to Harvard, I have seen that there are some incredibly talented teachers here,” he said. “There are many faculty members here for whom it seems effortless, and it has been a tremendous learning experience to work with them and to see them in the classroom.”
For students, Kahne said, the course’s multifaceted approach is designed to highlight a concept they may not normally associate with the sciences: that there may not be one single answer to a question, but multiple ways to approach it.
“Certainly, it’s easier for people to recognize that, if you read a piece of literature, there could be multiple ways to interpret it,” he said. “In the sciences, we’d like to teach it as though it’s objective and there is a single answer that is knowable, but in fact things can be quite variable, depending on your perspective.”
Jill M. Lepore
Just hours before she learned she’d been awarded a professorship, Lepore was leading a seminar class in one of the unlikeliest places on campus: the roof of the Science Center.
“Yesterday was my last class of the semester and one of the students in my American Revolution seminar had the brilliant idea that we should hold class there, so we trooped on over,” she said. “Up there, looking out and over the Yard, talking about the meaning of freedom, left me thinking, as I often do, what a delight and an honor it is to teach such astonishing students.”
While the digital revolution has profoundly transformed how some subjects are presented in the classroom, Lepore said her approach to teaching is “embarrassingly low-tech.”
Often, she said, the best way to understand history is to travel to the places where it was made. By experiencing a location that played witness to history, students can understand the forces that may have driven people a century ago.
To give them that experience, Lepore and students in her freshman seminar on Charles Dickens traveled to Lowell to trace the author’s 1842 journey to the city. In her class on the American Revolution, students spend time walking around Boston, “trying to find the 18th-century city that lies hidden within the 21st.”
When asked how a Harvard College Professorship will influence her teaching going forward, Lepore joked about a professor in New York who teaches a class on the city’s history — by bicycle.
“That sounds to me about the most beautiful use of technology in the classroom I could ever imagine,” she said. “But I’m open to suggestion; in my experience, the students always have the best ideas.”
David C. Parkes
For Parkes, the experience of teaching a new class has served as a springboard toward a new textbook on economics and computation, related to algorithmic economics, which he is writing with a former Ph.D. student, Sven Seuken, now on the faculty at the University of Zurich. Being named to a Harvard College Professorship will offer him the chance to extend his current sabbatical into the fall — and complete the book.
“This whole enterprise would simply not be possible in the same way without the ability to experience teaching and interacting with such a fantastic body of students,” he said. “I think that we need to remember that what makes Harvard truly great is the strength of our undergraduate body. It is an exciting and rewarding experience to be able to share new ideas, both in terms of the pleasure of teaching new things and the energy and enthusiasm that reflects back from students and motivates me to think about and understand concepts in new ways.”
When he returns to the classroom, though, his students can look forward to classes that he strives to make as engaging and interactive as possible.
“I encourage students to think actively and ask questions and stop me where there is confusion,” Parkes said. “I teach with a view to everyone in the class being able to understand the material and get something out of the material.
It is essential that the faculty of leading universities bring more than just facts and raw knowledge to the classroom,” he added. “We need to work to convey a deeper understanding and a point of view, a mental model with which to understand different concepts and the way that they fit together. I have tried to embrace this in a number of ways: through collaborative mark-up tools for reading class notes in advance so that reading is not an isolated experience for students; Web portals to facilitate posting of notes and questions and for class discussion; and looking to prompt students with questions ahead of class in order to structure my own lecture around the parts of the material that are most interesting or most challenging to students.”