Campus honors 'best of the best' with year-end teaching awards

Seven receive UCSC's annual Excellence in Teaching Awards

Photo of teaching award recipients

Committee on Teaching chair Charlie McDowell (fourth from left) and Chancellor Blumenthal are flanked by UCSC's 2012-13 Excellence in Teaching Award recipients: (l–r) Susan Strome, Lindsay Knisely, Vilashini Cooppan, Stefano Profumo, Raoul Birnbaum, Shelly Grabe, and Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz. (Photo: Michael Tassio)

On a campus known for its commitment to undergraduates, one of the highest honors faculty can receive is an Excellence in Teaching Award. At the end of the academic year, seven teachers were recognized for inspiring students with a passion that comes straight from the heart.

This year's recipients work across the disciplines, from literature to physics, united by a willingness to experiment and challenge themselves in pursuit of excellence. As Chancellor George Blumenthal told this year's recipients during a recent reception to present the 2013 awards, "Excellent teaching is a core value at UC Santa Cruz. It's central to the student experience. You give life to our values."

Administered by the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching, the awards are presented annually to "the best of the best." For the first time, finalists this year were asked to provide a statement of their teaching philosophy, and department chairs submitted letters of support for each finalist. Winners were selected from among more than 150 nominees submitted by students.

Most of the teaching awards include a prize of $500, with the exception of the Ron Ruby Award for Teaching Excellence in the Physical and Biological Sciences, which includes a $750 prize.

Recipients of the UC Santa Cruz 2013 Excellence in Teaching Awards are:

Raoul Birnbaum
Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture
Professor Birnbaum teaches Buddhist studies, with a focus on China. This multidisciplinary field combines religion, ethnography, and visual culture; there was no template for teaching in the field. Birnbaum said he initially relied as much on enthusiasm as any formal technique, but that changed over his 40-year career. He credits three sources with inspiring his ascent as a teacher: The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet, which he still rereads sections of every few years; saxophonist and improviser Lee Konitz, with whom he studied in the 1980s, who impressed upon him that no matter how familiar the material is, "it has to be alive;" and Chinese Buddhist scholar-monk Ven. Miaojing, who stressed the importance of framing key questions. Students praised Birnbaum and many thanked him for pushing them to excel, to set higher standards, and to achieve more.

Vilashini Cooppan
Associate professor of literature
Imagine a professor whose students bemoan the brevity of the quarter system because they want to keep learning from her. That's Professor Cooppan. She earns accolades from students in physics, neuroscience, biology, marine biology, and psychology, as well as literature, and they describe her classroom as a "two-way street"—a balance of lecture and discussion. Cooppan has wanted to be a literature professor since 10th grade, when an inspiring teacher helped her see that good teachers could be like magicians, helping students make connections and making invisible things visible. Her subject matter—slavery, colonization, imperialism, apartheid, and their aftermath— concerns what she calls "the heavy weight of historical trauma," and she challenges her students to leave behind their familiar ways of thinking.

Shelly Grabe
Assistant professor of psychology
In her personal statement about teaching, Professor Grabe wrote that teaching can be about conformity, or it can encourage the "practice of freedom." She chooses the latter, encouraging her students to allow themselves to be transformed—inspired and empowered--by the study of transnational feminist psychology. She views learning as a collaborative endeavor and, cognizant of the diversity of life experiences and learning styles within every classroom, she tailors her teaching in ways designed to optimize student engagement. Professor Grabe was described by students as "exceptional," "energetic," "generous," and "engaged." One student wrote that she "refused to make college easy, while simultaneously supporting us the whole way through and giving us a sense of agency over our own learning."

Lindsay Knisely
Lecturer, Oakes College
Lindsay Knisely, who teaches the core course at Oakes College, believes the ability to write well is the foundation of future success. To that end, she builds her curriculum around student interests, creating a course called "Youth Identity in a Networked Culture" and developing a peer-to-peer student mentoring program. She sets high expectations and is a "warm demander," as one student put it. Knisely works with the most needy students, including English language learners and those on academic probation, and students respond: At graduation, Oakes College asks each student who was especially important to their success at UCSC, and Knisely tops that list every year.

Stefano Profumo
Associate professor of physics
In Italy, where Professor Profumo studied, students typically had minimal contact with their instructors—often only interacting during a single hour-long oral final exam. Upon landing his first faculty appointment on campus, Profumo admits he felt intimidated. Today, Profumo is one of the campus's most popular and effective physics teachers, and teaching is a source of enormous professional fulfillment. To succeed, he learned a whole new skill set and embraced UCSC's student-centered approach: He modifies his teaching to meet student needs and focuses on delivering engaging, high-quality lectures, seeking inspiration from books that include The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. He encourages students to work together in small groups, rewards participation, and integrates research into teaching. The result? Students call his classes relaxing and fun.

Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz
Professor of astronomy and astrophysics
Professor Ramirez-Ruiz received the 2013 Ron Ruby Award for Teaching Excellence in the Physical and Biological Sciences, an award created by the family of founding physics faculty member Ron Ruby. Ramirez-Ruiz says his teaching is based on his core belief that the key to learning physics is persistence. He emphasizes problem solving above all else, including getting the right answer, and focuses on concepts to underscore that physics is more than memorizing a set of facts and equations. He wants to foster a love of learning and a passion for pursuing intellectual challenges; he builds confidence by providing positive feedback and rewarding effort. Ramirez-Ruiz approaches lectures as "guided conversations" and encourages students to participate in peer discussion—the beginning of what he calls professional-style communication that can lead to collaboration outside of class. Department Chair Greg Laughlin describes Ramirez-Ruiz as "tireless," noting that he teaches a full range lower-division through graduate courses, advised an "unprecedented" 17 undergraduates during the past three years, and is the only professor with the stamina and breadth of ideas to advise seven graduate students.

Susan Strome
Professor of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology
Professor Susan Strome was recruited from Indiana University in 2007 because of her portfolio of research accomplishments and her leadership in the development of new and innovative strategies for teaching genetics. More than 1,000 students at UCSC take genetics each year, yet it's challenging to create an outstanding learning environment in a large class without lab sections. Enter Susan Strome, who uses clickers to stimulate discussion, overhauled homework assignments to challenge students to think creatively about abstract concepts, and whose in-class demonstrations are legendary: She uses pipe cleaners, beads, pool noodles, and glow sticks to model key concepts and developed skits to act out biological processes. She reinforces classroom learning by offering hands-on workshops outside of class and is a dedicated mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students. Students describe her as kind, helpful, respectful, available, approachable, eager to help students, and fair. In perhaps the most telling testament, one wrote that she "really seems to love teaching."

For more information about this year's recipients, please go to this Academic Senate web page.