Faculty Dream Team

Quinn of anthropology
Vadhat of computer science
Leachman of economics
Shannon of English

 Awarded for good teaching: from top, Quinn of anthropology;Vadhat of computer science; Leachman of economics; and Shannon of English. Photos: Jim Wallace


Even as the university was recognizing its newest graduates, the end of the spring semester produced some meaningful moments for another set of accomplished campus citizens. The occasion was the annual distinguished teaching awards ceremony, sponsored by Trinity College and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Writing.

Laurie Shannon, professor of English and winner of the Robert B. Cox Teaching Award, was nearly a tax lawyer, which in her mind might have been a tragedy to rival those she teaches so well. But after two years of 1040's, she switched to Shakespeare and her career has gone, more or less, as she likes it. Since arriving at Duke in 1996, Shannon has garnered the praise of students and faculty, becoming, in the words of department chair Maureen Quilligan, "the very best in English," able to elucidate the subtleties of meaning in Romantic literature with clarity and precision and plenty of humor. Learning, says Shannon, should be what it was intended to be in the Renaissance: "sweet and useful."

The recipient of the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award for teaching excellence is computer-science professor Amin Vadhat, who made an important discovery: that stories are powerful and can even be used to teach something as numbers-laden as computer science. "Telling stories, bringing it back to the people," is Vadhat's strategy. He meets with each student individually three times a semester and employs his computing expertise to engage them in class, guiding lectures with PowerPoint slides. "The key is just to get them started [talking.] Then it's easy." Asked if his early promotion to tenure would affect his teaching, Vahdat is resolute: "My goals are much higher than tenure."

An economic crisis? The supply of Howard D. Johnson Distinguished Teacher Award winner Lori Leachman, which is constant at one, cannot keep up with demand, which is rising every year. As the number of students enrolled in introductory economics courses grows, Leachman, the department's associate director of undergraduate studies, has come up with new ways to present the material to larger classes. She helped create a website with a computer-graphics program that walks students through complex economic theories and applications as many times as needed, and helped launch EcoTeach, software designed to advise and mentor students and train teaching assistants.

" To give students an opportunity to confront the science itself in a more disinterested and critical way than in the science classes they might be taking concurrently." This, says Cary Moskovitz, a fellow in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Writing and winner of the Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing, is the "underlying goal and driving principle of my writing classes." Through such issues as the environmental effects of genetically modified corn or the risk of using a cell phone while driving, Moskovitz teaches a "discipline-based course" with the primary objectives of crafting an argument and deploying rhetorical and stylistic devices.

Renan Levine A.M. '99, a doctoral student in political science and the winner of the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching, was eager to share the volumes of knowledge he acquired in graduate school with his first class of students. Then his teaching mentor stepped in. "He stressed that there is a big difference between an entertaining lecture and one that leaves the students informed about a particular topic. I had to understand how to control the amount of what I share." He did. One time, instead of lecturing, he let his students watch a comedian to identify heuristics and other methods highlighted during the monologue. Another time, the class rewrote a popular reggae song.

Cultural anthropology professor Naomi Quinn says she "backed into teaching" and, years later, finds herself at the front of the line. Before winning the Richard K. Lublin Award for Distinguished Teaching, she had seldom thought of herself as someone who stands in the front of the classroom and instructs students in what she knows. Upon completing a Curriculum Transformation Workshop at Duke in 1990, however, she says she realized that "to be a good teacher is to find some part of yourself that works in the classroom." The part of Quinn that works best is the "permissive, laid back part, listening very hard, and pulling out ideas and questions."

Preferring the role of "master of ceremonies," James Thrall, a doctoral student in the graduate program in religion and winner of the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching, uses questions to move discussion along until the student dialogue develops a life of its own and, he hopes, amounts to something. "I struggle, not always successfully, to avoid discussion for discussion's sake." By challenging assumptions about what religion means and how it might be represented, Thrall says he wants his students to "confront theories, approaches, and possibilities for thinking about a subject they had never considered."

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