Nine faculty members honored with Excellence in Teaching awards

Excellence in Teaching award recipients
With Chancellor George Blumenthal, far right, the Excellence in Teaching Award winners for 2016 are, from left, Matthew Lasar, Dean Mathiowetz, Glenn Millhauser, Faye Crosby, Douglas Bonett, Melissa Sanders-Self, Tracy Larrabee, Caitlin Binder, and Richard Mitchell. (Photo by Leanna Parsons)

The Excellence in Teaching Awards given each year by the UC Santa Cruz Academic Senate Committee on Teaching are among the highest honors faculty members can receive. The awards honor instructors who have demonstrated exemplary and inspiring teaching.

Students make the nominations and more than 620 were received this year. Nine faculty members from engineering, humanities, sciences, and social sciences were selected for their inspirational teaching.

The awards include a cash prize. Nominees are also asked to submit a personal statement on their teaching philosophies.

“You bring caring, passion, talent and commitment to teaching,” Chancellor George Blumenthal said at the June 2 luncheon when the awards were presented. “I’m delghted to present these awards to you today."

Blumenthal noted that excellent teaching is a core value at UC Santa Cruz and central to the student experience.

The winners of the Excellence in Teaching Award for 2016 are:

Caitlin Binder
Lecturer in chemistry
Caitlin Binder is the recipient of the Ron Ruby Award for Teaching Excellence from the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences.

Binder wrote in her statement that she thinks of her classes as being a performance, catching the attention of her students and giving them something memorable to take home. In Organic Chemistry, she brings students to the front of the class and connects them with bungee cords to demonstrate resonance and molecular geometry. She also uses “acro-chemistry” in the classroom, integrating movement and acrobatics into her lessons.

“The students get to see my active and goofy side that I rarely get to express as a lecturer,” she wrote. “I close with the message that they can achieve anything if they practice enough.”

Douglas Bonett
Professor of psychology
Douglas Bonett teaches upper-division statistics, a required course for psychology majors, who bring a wide range of comfort levels to the subject. Students praised him for a clear, calm teaching style and for making the material interesting and relevant in the real world.

“I encourage students to ask questions at any time during the lecture. In large lecture sections, I will stop lecturing about every 10 minutes and ask a few questions about material just covered,” he wrote. “Student responses and questions also provides valuable feedback about their level of understanding and if I need to explain some concepts again with different examples or from a different angle.”

Bonett also emphasizes the need to be ethical and conservative with statistics. As the director of the Center for Statistical Analysis in the Social Sciences, he developed two popular concentration programs for graduate students.

Faye Crosby
Professor of psychology
Faye Crosby teaches research methods. She wrote that there are three components that make up good teaching: instruction, engagement, and inspiration. Instruction involves the transfer of knowledge. It’s useful and necessary—but not nearly as exciting or enriching as inspiration, which touches students’ emotions and motivates them to take action. The job of the professor, she noted, is to arrange material in such a way that students become engaged in the subject matter. Because ultimately, it is students who teach themselves.

“We must adapt our techniques to the situation,” Crosby wrote. “In a large lecture class, I structure every minute and throw oranges to the students to keep them alert. In an advanced seminar, I try to speak less than the students and throw no oranges.”

Crosby’s students describe her as the most caring, enthusiastic, and loving professor they’ve ever had. One wrote, Faye’s personality “radiates throughout every lecture.”

Tracy Larrabee
Professor of computer engineering
Tracy Larrabee teaches Computer Systems and Assembly Language, the first course in hardware design that’s required for all engineering majors. For many students, it’s a new and intimidating experience. Students said Larrabee works hard to make her teaching personal, motivational, and participatory.

She emphasizes that computer engineering is inherently challenging and reassures students that failure is part of the learning process—and she celebrates their success when they triumph over perplexity.

“I tell (students) that the best sign of a good study session is waste basket filled with discarded calculations (even if these days that waste basket might be an electronic one),” Larrabee wrote.

Matthew Lasar
Lecturer in history
Matthew Lasar wrote that the central message of history is choice. No chapter of human history was inevitable. No chapter was devoid of choice—nationalism, slavery, romantic love, free labor. Past generations have always made choices, he said.

“These discoveries free us, I think. They empower us to make decisions in our time; to act conservatively in some instances, or radically in others. Our ancestors chose then. We can and must choose now.”

Lasar makes himself available to students for an extraordinary level of counsel and support. Even in a class of 40 students—with no TA support—he meets individually with each student. One student wrote that Lasar brings wit and humor to his lectures, during which he reads speeches, sings songs, and even danced to the Bee Gees.

Dean Mathiowetz
Associate professor of politics
Dean Mathiowetz wrote that he considers kindness the most important aspect of his approach to teaching. He has high standards and provides generous feedback on student work—but kindness is what allows students to take risks, to ask difficult—or sometimes very basic—questions, and to be comfortable with the important role that not knowing plays in learning.

His students admire and appreciate him, writing that he is “the most intelligent and remarkably engaging individual I’ve had the pleasure to learn from here at UC Santa Cruz.” One student marveled at coming to love reading Aristotle, Augustine, and Plato, while another wrote, “I left his classroom every day with a renewed sense of purpose and ambition.”

To model the contribution of “not knowing,” Mathiowetz shows up to class prepared with an outline and clear sense of the end point, but the path isn’t set in stone. Students’ contributions can always shift the route.

Glenn Millhauser
Distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry
Glenn Millhauser wrote that he feels fortunate to teach chemistry, a subject that is connected to so many critical issues today, from climate change to genetic disorders. He uses pressing topical issues to engage students in the classroom.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, became a galvanizing “teachable moment” in Millhauser's Chemistry 1 class this year. Early in the quarter, he gave a mini-lecture on the chemistry of water passing through lead pipes—noting that pipes in Santa Cruz also leach lead into drinking water—and watched students sit up and take notice, empowered by their understanding of basic chemistry and what it means in our everyday lives.

Students describe him as devoted, passionate, and approachable, and say his teaching is outstanding.

Richard Mitchell
Lecturer in mathematics
For 32 years, Richard Mitchell has taught a range of mathematics courses at UC Santa Cruz. His courses have ranged from math for nonmath majors to honors-level calculus for math and physics majors.

Mitchell wrote that it has been his mission to invite students to look deeply into what he calls “this strangely beautiful realm of thought.” Many students come in having had bad experiences with math, and Mitchell tackles the challenge head on.

He tries to break down stereotypes associated with mathematics and mathematicians—and to overcome students’ expectations that they will never understand math. He relies on a process he calls demystification, which begins with helping students master the language of mathematics. Demystification ends when students gain a deep conceptual understanding of—and appreciation for—mathematics.

Melissa Sanders-Self
Lecturer in literature
Melissa Sanders-Self is a lecturer in literature who wrote that she feels privileged to teach creative writing. For undergraduates who are just starting out, she considers her most important job to be helping them discover a love and passion for reading and writing that will endure throughout their lives.

For upper-division students who want to be writers, she said her job is to guide them—which often involves instilling an appreciation for rewriting, editing, and polishing their work.

Sanders-Self helps students find their voice as writers, and she works hard to create a safe environment emotionally for students to express themselves on the page and in the classroom. Her feedback is legendary: she often writes one- to three-page responses, covering line edits as well as big-picture thoughts.