Each year, awards for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education are given to professors and teaching assistants in the School of Arts and Sciences to recognize their outstanding achievements in and beyond the classroom, their engagement with their students and pedagogic communities, and their overall commitment to the undergraduate education mission. Each year, the theme that inevitably shines through in each nomination is the students’ understanding that these instructors “genuinely want us to learn.” We are indebted to these instructors and are grateful for their untiring support of our students and stewardship of the future.
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Professor: Bruce Tesar
Online Teaching: Amir Aziz
Lifetime Career Achievement
Catherine Puglisi, Art History
While Professor Catherine Puglisi may have spent over three decades at Rutgers teaching undergraduate students about art, she has also spent that time perfecting the teaching of art history as an art form. She is at once an indefatigable mentor, an inspiring lecturer, a pedagogical innovator, a prodigious scholar, a constant source of encouragement, and a perpetually careful reader of student work. Whether it be in one of her small seminars on Baroque art, a mid-size class on Spanish painting, or a much larger 100-level introductory lecture to Art History, Professor Puglisi has frequently garnered scores in the mid-4 range and above the department mean.
Much as a description of a work of art does not do the piece justice, these scores do not capture the breadth and depth of Professor Puglisi’s contributions to undergraduate education. In exquisite detail and clarity, her syllabi express to her student what is expected of them, what they can expect from her, the pacing and presentation of the course, and how the assignments tie in with the learning goals. In each case, a sample of the art representing the topic is front and center on page one, inviting the student into discovery and art appreciation at this very initial stage. In her classes, she promotes engagement, close-looking, and critical analysis, at the same time as she values inclusivity, integration of technology, transparency, and flexibility. One colleague lauded her for, “the efforts she takes to provide crystal clear information surely help students with little to no exposure to art history, or with less experience in writing-focused or humanities courses, to succeed.”
Professor Puglisi is known for her kindness, positivity, and enthusiasm. She lures into art history even those students who are initially reticent, taking her classes to fulfill a Core requirement. Said one student, “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this course, as I had no prior interest in the topic, but I’ve gained a new appreciation for art. Dr. Puglisi encouraged me to think outside of the box and look at artwork in a different perspective.” Students frequently find ways to make connections between the coursework and the world of art and culture outside the classroom: “This course helped me to notice art forms in my everyday life that I never acknowledged before. Helped me gain insight on other cultures and their religions.” Her influence is so profound, in fact, that students find themselves confessing a newfound interest in art: “I’ve truthfully never enjoyed history but this class along with Dr. Puglisi has genuinely sparked my intellectual curiosity so much that I think I may minor in Art History.” And “This course led me to visit art museums during my personal time.”
Professor Puglisi is a model for others to follow—and they have. Numerous graduate students and junior faculty in the department have all expressed immense gratitude for her close mentorship and leadership. Contributions to undergraduate education come not only from teaching, but also from serving as a department leader in an administrative capacity, training TAs, and helping new faculty be their best selves as scholars and instructors. Professor Puglisi has shown this throughout her career. Her nominators write, “Catherine Puglisi holds herself to the highest standards of teaching and gently makes us and our students’ better teachers. She has always considered mentoring all our TAs as an essential part of her job.” Teaching is but one part of Professor Puglisi’s role as a professor, standing alongside her doctoral advising, wide ranging scholarship, and commitment to the departmental community, and yet she finds a way to integrate them all together, in a true pretzel-like fashion. She represents all that we value in a colleague, mentor, and instructor for our undergraduate students, and we are therefore proud to recognize her for her career of achievements to undergraduate education.
Lifetime Career Achievement
Stephen Reinert, History
Associate Professor Stephen Reinert’s contributions to the undergraduate experience at Rutgers and the chosen subject matter of his history courses have something in common: they represent sweeping historic, transformative journeys that have wide-ranging, long-lasting impact. If it seems like an exaggeration to describe a teaching career in this way, consider the numbers alone. Since joining Rutgers in the early 1980s, Professor Reinert has taught approximately 4400 students in over 20 different courses offered in the History and Classics department. These include courses on Byzantine literature and civilization and the empire, Greek prose, Medieval studies, Medieval Christian view of Islam, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, and Dracula. These courses range from smaller advanced seminars to large introductory courses at the 100- and 200-level. He has also directed or co-directed many honors theses since 1991.
No matter the size or the audience, Professor Reinert has been consistently praised by students for making historical content exciting, for his passion and enthusiasm, for his ability to weave together humor, depth of content knowledge, sources, deft lecturing, and constructive feedback. Said one student of his course on the Cluny monastery in Burgundy, “[This is] one of the best courses at Rutgers...[It] really encourages student understanding of the world and how we got to where we are today...Also one of the best professors at Rutgers by far. [Professor Reinert is a] very kind person, intelligent professor, and great teacher.” And another reflected, “I enjoyed how immersive this course was. It really tried to recreate historical and archaeological experiences at Cluny through Professor Reinert's detailed lecturing and copious amounts of sources.”
Never content to merely teach a course, Professor Reinert has consistently sought ways to expand the concept of the classroom, the mode of delivery, and the subject matter itself. His European survey course disrupted the Western bias by showcasing the divisions between Western and Orthodox regions and the influence of the Islamic civilization. His course on the Crusades not only guides students along the routes, conditions, and movements of the armies, but tracks the cultural and political ramifications. His course Dracula: Facts and Fictions features the legendary Vlad of Wallachia (Vlad the Impaler) and his various reincarnations, inviting students to explore his life, the interpretation of his career based on surviving works, how his character and deeds were vilified, how the versions of this legend took shape over time, and Dracula evolved as an enduring icon of pop culture. In these classes, Professor Reinert focuses not only on the history, but on close reading skills, presenting arguments and positions based on textual analysis, and the complexity of interpreting the past—all while presenting the material in an accessible, captivating, relaxed way. Professor Reinert has always embraced both traditional chalk talk and new technology. Well before the pandemic hit, forcing everyone to pivot to online instruction, Professor Reinert was already a pioneer of the online modality. And well before ever instructor had a dedicated course website or LMS, he launched extensive course sites in the Fall of 1996. All of this without any instructional designers or IT support.
Professor Reinert’s courses have never been constrained to the walls of a classroom—well before “experiential learning” was a movement. His students traveled to France to explore the monastery that was the subject of their course on Cluny, and to Philadelphia to the Rosenbach library. It seemed only natural that he should be the Dean of the Rutgers Study Abroad program from 2006-2012. It seems apt that one student referred to his course as “immersive.” Professor Reinert represents the best of teaching at Rutgers, and we are honored to recognize him for his achievements over the course of his career with this award.
Bruce Tesar, Linguistics
As an expert on phonology and learnability theory, Professor Tesar regularly teaches courses in Linguistics, including the ever-popular Linguistics and Cognitive Science. As a result of the inherently interesting content, and the precision, consistency, and care with which Professor Tesar approaches this course, the enrollments are steady, resulting in consistently maxed-out stop points and waitlists nearly every semester. Students from Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Computer Science all flock to this course. One look at the course evaluations, and one sees exactly why. His scores are consistently above 4.5. Bolstering these scores are comments that highlight over and over again the time Professor Tesar puts into his course preparation and its organization, the manageable pacing, the attention he gives his students during and outside of class time, the way in which he inspires students to want to learn more about a topic they initially found to be unfamiliar and intimidating, and how much he stands out in the students’ course experiences at Rutgers. One student wrote, “The connection between Linguistics and Cognitive Science was one that I never thought to explore but am so glad that I did. This course really was engaging and has been one of my favorite courses at Rutgers.” And another: “The professor was amazing! He is my favorite linguistic instructor so far.”
Semester after semester, the most frequently praised aspect of the course (and others he teaches) is “The structure! Perhaps the most organized of all the classes I've ever taken. There is clear consistency in each week regarding expectations and it created a nice flow for the semester. I liked how the group assignments set you up for the problem sets; they really helped me in understanding the material further.” Students also note, “The materials for this course were laid out in a clearly organized, regularly updated manner. The course, though asynchronous, was very well scheduled and organized so that it felt that I could go through the material week by week and not fall behind at any point. The weekly announcements of when this week's material, weekly assignments, and posted feedback were very helpful in letting us know that our instructor was constantly engaged with our course and with our progress as well, and I greatly appreciated the use of a tool to submit anonymous questions, comments, or concerns, as it made it even easier to ask for help.”
Professor Tesar’s accessibility is complemented by the reliable clarity and predictability that students know they can depend on for their learning. One student praised “The very predictable pattern of lecture, assignment, group assignment. It got me into a weekly pattern and flow. The workload always seemed manageable and I always knew what to do. The class had a rhythm.” Another noted, “The lecture videos were very clear and detailed. Sometimes I would look at assignments prior to starting the lecture to get an idea of what we would be going over, and I had no idea of how to complete them. However, as soon as I began the lectures for the week, you clearly laid out exactly what had to be done and I never had trouble completing assignments.”
There is no better way to capture Professor Tesar’s distinguished contributions than to highlight a quotation that every instructor would be thrilled to read in their course evaluations: “You are an amazing professor! I loved every minute of lectures and truly enjoyed the material. This has been by far my favorite course I have taken in my 3.5 years at Rutgers. If I could take you as a professor for my last semester I would! Keep being awesome!” We, too, hope that Professor Tesar keeps being awesome, and we hope this award serves as motivation.
Associate Professor Zeynep Gürsel stands as proof that adherence to intellectual and professional rigor does not mean sacrificing a compassionate, personal connection with undergraduate students, and that being a well-versed, productive, competitive scholar does not mean succumbing to the pitfalls of competition and perpetuating them in a younger population entering the field. Described as a top-notch researcher and scholar, and an excellent teacher, Professor Gürsel takes every opportunity to demonstrate to her students that they are seen and validated, that their contributions matter, and that they are not alone. She sees her students as individual with the potential to be writers, researchers, and valued members of the academic community.
The word “community” is important; Professor Gürsel not only sees her class as a community, but actively connects her students to the community outside the classroom, as she did with her community engagement project, which took students on a tour of New Brunswick. Because every member of the community is respected and welcome, Professor Gürsel will not allow students to apologize for sharing perspectives or comments that may or may not be “right.” Her SIRS course evaluations alone don’t do justice to her approach to teaching and her connection with and support of her students. Individual student connections are where she shines. Ability to convey scholarly content alone cannot lead a student to say that, “At a university where I felt like I was drowning alone, she reached out her hand.” Professor Gürsel wants her students to see in themselves their worth and capability. Said one student, “Professor Gürsel can extract big ideas and insightful questions from our responses to classroom discussion and challenges us to expand our thinking. She pushes her students to be better.” And another wrote that, “She engages undergraduate students through taking seriously their own experiences with culture and social life, as well as via incorporating visual media that illustrates core concepts. Her passion for anthropology and its unique toolset for dealing with problems in the world shines through as the guiding principle of each 101 lecture.”
While Professor Gürsel also shines at the graduate level, teaching graduate courses and advising dissertations, she also dedicates her time and attention to undergraduates in courses in Anthropology and the SAS Honors program. She has taught her Interdisciplinary honors seminar on photography multiple times, each time with a small group of 11 to 16 students. Student report that Professor Gürsel, “Really helped to grow my writing and the way with which I engage with academic texts,” and that her “repeatedly emphasizing TO DO SOMETHING with quotes rather than having them as bricks was useful because now every time I use a quote, I know I need to do something with it.” Still, in a larger class, Culture and Social Life, which has four to five times that number of students, Professor Gürsel finds a way to add a personal touch and excitement over the subject matter. One student wrote, “This course has encouraged my intellectual growth in learning what anthropology is and its importance. Every lecture I went to I'd learn something new and find it interesting to know more about anthropologists and what they do.” Another described her as “Energetic and quirky, always made you feel good about coming to her class, overall exciting and thoughtful experience.” And another praised her for creating a “Judgment free environment, encouraged participation without pressuring anyone.”
In Professor Gürsel, students see not only a teacher and scholar who is dedicated to her craft, but also a human who cares deeply about their personal well-being, their growth, and their self-worth. It is for this reason that we recognize her with this award.
Associate Professor Pernille Hemmer is known in the Department of Psychology for being perspicacious and one to meet a challenge head on. Addressing a need in the undergraduate curriculum, Professor Hemmer developed a Matlab programming course in Programming for Behavioral Scientists, which is delivered in a lecture-lab format where students received both systematic instruction and hands-on experience. By far not an easy course, it is one that fills a gap in the curriculum, addresses a need, and challenges students, pushing them to learn new skills in a topic and format that stands at odds with many of their other courses in the major. Professor Hemmer has recognized the challenge and has worked continuously to use the feedback from the course evaluations to evaluate and adjust the course, also administering a pre- and post-test to assess student’s initial and final programming.
At the same time, she is equally tenacious about making the experience valuable to students. Students recognize Professor Hemmer’s efforts to support them and make the material accessible, reporting that, “She's so helpful and patient. Coding is hard to learn and she knows that. The workshop part of the class was where I learned the most and really boosted my confidence.” And another writing that, “Prof. Hemmer presented the material with clear instruction, categorized well in themes, and reinforced with interactive modules (discussions & interactive exercises)…She was very available during the interactive sessions for questions and easy participation. She advised us about study habits throughout the semester.” The benefits of the course go well beyond the submit matter itself. It provides students with the soft skills and competencies that will serve them well, no matter their future careers. One student recognized this, reflecting, “I don't think I have ever had a course which taught me to problem solve, analyze, or think critically as much as this course has. Though I ended up enjoying the programming and will continue to use it, more people should take this course because it promotes the kind of thinking and skill set that you need for jobs/grad school.”
She has taught this programming course four times. Enrollments are small, typically less than 15. Dr. Hemmer is also in the rotation to teach Cognition, one of the department’s core 300-level courses, with enrollments ranging from 35-80 students. She has taught this course four times. Students comment on the interactive, engaging lectures, as well as her knowledge, passion, and ability to provide quality feedback. For both courses, her most recent ratings for course and instructor quality are in the mid-4 range.
Beyond the classroom, Professor Hemmer is dedicated to mentoring undergraduates conducting research in her lab and enhancing diversity in cognitive science. Undergraduate students advised by Dr. Hemmer include women from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Over the years, in addition to the numerous graduate students she has advised, Professor Hemmer has advised nearly 30 undergraduate students in her lab as work study students, research assistants, and McNair scholars. Many of these students have received competitive departmental and university awards or prestigious and competitive fellowships, and some have gone on to graduate programs.
Professor Hemmer sees it as her responsibility to prepare and mentor undergraduate students in psychology and cognitive science. In her lab and in her classes, she has demonstrated how to do this in a way that equips our students for future courses, research, and a variety of careers to follow. For these reasons, she is well-deserving of this SAS Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education.
Recently, worries have surfaced about the future of the English major. Higher Education is looking for ways to extoll the value of humanities, reminding students and parents about the skills that come from a liberal arts education. If one wants evidence to back up these claims, one need look no further than Professor Kristin Grogan. Teaching courses such as Early 20th-Century Poetry and Later 20th-Century Poetry: American Poetry Since 1945, Issues & Problems in 20th Century Literature & Culture, and Principles of Literary Study, Assistant Professor Kristin Grogan introduces students—sometimes the very students who resist poetry and literature—to the beauty and value of the subject matter, while creatively equipping them those ‘soft skills’ that will serve them for years to come.
Student after student in her course evaluations seem to arrive at this realization on their own. Said one, “I HATED [all caps!] poetry before this class, and while I still don’t love it, I 100% have a better appreciation, and understand poetry because of this class (and even found some poems I really liked).” And another, “She has prepared me in my ability to independently work outside of the classroom, and in my public speaking abilities through group work as well as my close reading skills.” Or this student who wrote, “This course has encouraged me to be a more active reader and to think analytically and slowly while reading any literary texts.” And still another: “After this course, I feel more comfortable when it comes to analyzing new texts and communicating my thoughts/interpretations both verbally and in written form.” Again and again, in ratings in the mid- to high-4 range across her classes with impressive response rates, Professor Grogan demonstrates her commitment to her students’ intellectual growth, her own enthusiasm over 20th century writers and poets, and the importance of including everyone’s voice. When asked what they would change, one student suggested that she include more rap—not because the class needed it, but because the student just likes rap, and she admitted the class was fine without it.
It may be that the subject matter is inherently interesting. Many students have never before taken a course on Literature and Sexuality. It is clear that Professor Grogan is the key to unlocking her students’ potential and excitement: “Her enthusiasm is encouraging and contagious, making each class meeting an absolute blast. Her inclusion of additional resources at the end of each lecture is really great and I love spending way too much time on my own looking up all the books I want to read next!” and “This course makes some sensitive topics easy to understand and it's due to Professor Grogan's style of teaching. I never felt in over my head or less intelligent in the discussions because she encouraged all comments.” In her course, “Poetry and Daily Life” Professor Grogan took Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed as an invitation to have her students connect poetry to the world around them, asking them to walk through their neighborhoods and compose responses. What grew from this activity, in the words of her Chair, was an appreciation of “a sense of physical connection, intellectual fellowship, and creative energy.” This connection and energy was felt keenly by the students. As one reflected, “Having been in COVID lockdown for so long, it felt as though every day was exactly the same. Being able to understand the everyday through these theoretical frameworks and poems has allowed me to get a deeper appreciation of even the smallest minutiae in the everyday, especially the differences each day has from another.”
In Professor Grogan we find a model of the value of the humanities and the English major, a reminder of the beauty of literature and poetry, and the possibilities a great instructor can awaken in students. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Chair of the English department reports that Professor Grogan “has established herself as one of the most dynamic and sought-after instructors in the English department.” We, too, recognize her with this award.
K. Sebastian León, Latino and Caribbean Studies and Program for Criminal Justice
Assistant Professor León does not shy away from a challenge, and he doesn’t expect his students to either. In courses covering topics such as race, crime, injustice, incarceration, power dynamics, disparities among ethnicities, and drug policies, Professor León asks his students to push themselves to engage with readings that are often long and complex, re-examine their preconceived notions, and hold themselves accountable for their arguments and positions. In return, he values them for who they are and the difficult journey that they are on, and he meets them where they are as he brings them further along. Students recognize the value of this approach and their journey. One student wrote, “His teaching style and knowledge about the course topics has helped me to see the world through a different lens and helped me to enjoy engaging with the topic.” Another said that, “I had to read in order to learn.” And still another admitting that, “Throughout the course I had to read and write about many articles. Many of them which were difficult to understand, however through pushing myself to get through them I feel it helped me grow as a reader. The class also tremendously improved my writing skills.”
The realization of the profound amount of growth that occurs in his classes is common among his course evaluations, which are consistently high. One student’s comments capture the essence of this growth: “Before this class, I had a very black and white perception about the carceral state– bad people go to prison, good people don’t…perhaps I was just another person that had fallen into the same mentality that inherently dismisses crimes committed by the state through social, political, and economic injustices. This is definitely one of the toughest classes I have taken this semester, not only because of the material, but because of the accountability Professor León holds his students to…besides learning a whole lot about a new subject matter I had no idea about, this class has made me a better student, able to time manage and balance school work.”
Professor León creates a genuine connection with his students. In his syllabus, Professor León tells his students about who he is as an instructor—what his professional background and training are, where he grew up, when his family migrated to the US, and that his dogs occasionally come to campus. He writes, “Being the first in my family to graduate with a college degree in the US, it is a sincere privilege to contribute to your undergraduate learning experience, and a responsibility which I take very seriously. I am committed to supporting your academic success.” This level of honesty and commitment pervades every aspect of Professor León’s role as an instructor. Having joined Rutgers in 2018, he has taught nine different courses (19 different classes) for both the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and in the Program for Criminal Justice. In addition to his regular courses, he has taught Byrne seminars and is planning to teach an Honors seminar in the Fall. His colleagues laud him for “helping elevate the intellectual standards and discourse within our program” and describe him as “as an open, approachable, inclusive, knowledgeable, and passionate teacher who cares deeply about his students' learning outcomes.” These qualities are beautifully captured by a student who wrote, “Professor León motivated me to the finish line of completing my honors thesis, graduating, and pursuing a future in academia. Professor León taught me to take up space, especially as a first-generation student interested in advocacy and accountability within the criminal justice system.”
Professor León is a skilled educator and an advocate for his students, who in the words of one student, “is able to shape future generations of students who come in thinking they're taking a class for a core credit but leave with a heightened sense of purpose and civic duty.” For these reasons, we recognize him with this award.
Since joining Rutgers in 2016, General Psychology (or Gen Psych, as it is known) and Health Psychology have been staples of Assistant Teaching Professor Brynildsen’s teaching portfolio. Indeed, each semester she has taught 3 courses or sections, and even taught over the summers. The list is long. The enrollments are high: consistently over 150, and at times well over 300, and even threatening to reach 400. In fact, her nomination packet for this award was long enough for each page to represent a student in her Gen Psych lecture. And yet each and every page attests to her amazing lecture style, her qualities as a conscientious, engaging, and prepared instructor, and her ability to provide timely feedback and answer questions effectively. Sweet, friendly, patient, gentle, amazing, kind, nice, encouraging—and super nice—are all words commonly used to describe her, all the while making it clear that she facilitates the intellectual growth of her students. Across her many courses, her SIRS ratings are consistently between 4.7 and 4.88, and her teaching effectiveness consistently between 4.7 and 4.9. This is simply outstanding!
Again and again, students comment on how impressed they were with the welcoming, positive learning environment she creates, the organization of the class, and the research she conducted on questions, which she returned to in subsequent classes. One student’s comment encapsulates many others: “I enjoyed going to this class so much that I chose to take another class taught by Dr. Brynildsen next semester. She is super kind, knowledgeable about topics, and even does her homework by researching questions she cannot answer in class. If a student asks a question she does not know the answer to, she jots it down, researches it on her own time, and gets back to the student the next class with an answer. This is impressive because she has other responsibilities at school and home. She also cared to learn students' names although there are about 300 of us just in this section!” Students love her examples from real life, her clarity of explanations, and her ability to connect with them. In fact, she is so skilled at teaching that at times, it’s almost as if she tricks students into forgetting they are in a large psych lecture: “She has a way about her during lecture, it's as if we're having a nice chill chat instead of it just being a teacher teaching students. I like the pop culture references in all her questions as well, it makes the course feel more personal somehow. You can tell that Professor Brynildsen is really smart and knows her stuff as well, she always explains concepts so elegantly.”
This sentiment is not restricted to the classroom. Her office hours and meetings outside of class are a space for Professor Brynildsen to support her students individually. Writes one, “During visiting office hours, Dr. Brynildsen helped me with my overall confidence as a person. The professor also enforced not to relate the given material to my own personal struggles, but instead to open my mind in ways where I can help other people. Also, due to the passionate and informative tone from Dr. Brynildsen while teaching the course material, I never felt so excited to come to a class before.” And another, “Dr. Brynildsen has been such a pleasure this semester and she really knows what she is talking about. When I didn't do well on my first exam, I was really discouraged, and I went to talk to her and she gave me some different ideas, tips, and tricks to help me the next time around and it did.”
Beyond teaching, she has served for four years as a faculty partner for the Psychology Living Learning Community and in the Peer Mentor Welcome and Orientation for incoming first-year students. In addition, Professor Brynildsen has served as a faculty mentor for FIGS and has mentored learning assistants in her large lectures.
In short, we think Professor Brynildsen deserves this award, because, in the words of one student, “DR BRYNILDSEN IS AN AMAZING PROFESSOR, NO COMPLAINTS!!!!!!!”
College is a time for students to learn about the world around them in ways that challenge them and allow them to (re)discover themselves and their connection to the people around them. Certain courses—such as the ones that Assistant Teaching Professor Jeffrey Dowd teaches in Sociology—encapsulate this period of discovery and invite a deeper understanding of our common and diverse experiences. Introduction to Sociology, Sociological Analysis of Social Problems, Race Relations—these all require a reexamination and careful analysis of individuals, society, and social issues. Teaching these courses can itself be a challenge, especially if they are required, large lectures. And yet, somehow Professor Dowd makes it look easy.
No stranger to New Jersey, or to Rutgers, having received his doctoral training right here, Professor Dowd knows what resonates with Rutgers students, and knows how to support them, even through difficult and uncertain times. The word “perfect” appears often in his course evaluations—the course is perfect, nothing should be changed; he managed the pandemic perfectly, the novels studied are the perfect match. Perhaps “perfect” is hyperbole, but there is no doubt about the caliber his teaching, and in recent years it has only gotten stronger. Students comment on the format of his courses, his lectures, the innovative approach to content, and the connections they make beyond the classroom. For example, one student wrote, “This class was incredibly engaging and never boring. The format of the class included a variety of learning materials from lectures to discussions to videos that always made me look forward to going to class. I took away a lot from this class and learned a great deal.” This comment is representative of others. Another wrote, “Professor Dowd was able to explain each topic covered in the course with so much detail that it would have been hard to NOT understand it. If there were parts that were unclear, he would answer them in a way that was easy and understandable.” And another, “He does such a great job creating an amalgam of sociology as a social science and history lessons. He is passionate about what he teaches, and I can see his enthusiasm for it.”
In a course asking students to read “six great reads” in Sociology, one student admitted, “Since I don't really read a whole lot, I was initially put off by the number of books we would have to read in this course. But after maybe the second or third book, I couldn't put the material down. I surprised myself with just how much I enjoyed reading the six books we read due in part to Professor Dowd's clear presentation of the material and his generation of interest towards the material.”
Professor Dowd not only inspires students who would prefer to read zero books to be willing (if not eager) to read six. Students frequently report that his courses and his teaching encourage them to “think about the bigger picture, beyond my own social bubble.” This sentiment is profoundly captured by a student from his Race Relations class: “This course really opened my eyes, and fundamentally changed the way I understand the world around me and the way society operates. I'm very grateful to have had the chance to learn from this course.”
Beyond his teaching, Professor Dowd in his capacity as Undergraduate Director of the Department of Sociology has implemented essential updates to the major and undergraduate curriculum, made concerted efforts to better elucidate the pathways from a Sociology degree to a career, and reinvigorated the Sociology Club. The department lauds his attention to pedagogy, his proactiveness, and his focus on community building. We laud him for all of his contributions to undergraduate education in SAS and recognize him with this award.
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Assistant Teaching Professor Martin is a highly skilled instructor and a valued contributor to forwarding the mission of the Rutgers Writing Program. She excels in the classroom, and Professor Martin’s SIRS scores are consistently strong even though students know that her grading standards are high. In Fall 2022, for example, her average teaching effectiveness score was 4.9, about a half-point above the program’s mean. The average for course quality in her classes is 4.8, more than three-quarters of a point higher than the program’s mean.
Perhaps even more meaningful than her high SIRS ratings are the many pages of glowing and often lengthy student comments about her courses. Students consistently praise Professor Martin’s responsiveness and creativity and appreciate that she creates a safe and productive atmosphere for discussion. As one student said, “The class discussions are always great, especially with Professor Martin, as she brings out unique concepts and hears everyone's opinion without any bias. I also enjoyed talking to my peers and discussing the topics with them.”
One of the special things about Professor Martin’s relationship with students is that she reaches and inspires students across a wide range of academic backgrounds and interests and with varying levels of comfort with writing. One student wrote, for example, “Typically, I consider myself a math–science person and dreaded the idea of taking expos. However, after joining this class I have both enjoyed and engaged in both reading and writing. Dr. Martin is a caring and helpful professor. She clearly explains assignments and keeps the classes both fun and knowledgeable. I feel through her teaching I have become a better student and a stronger writer.” Another student said, “Going into Expository writing, I was disappointed that I had to take this class because I thought I would have been able to opt–out of it. It ended up being my favorite class. This was the first time I could really put my own spin on my writing. I loved how personal the feedback I received on each of my essays was. The professor made classes engaging and helpful, tailored to the student's struggles. While being my most work–intensive class, I think it was the one I gained the most from, and looking back, I am happy it was a requirement.”
Beyond her excellence in the classroom, Professor Martin regularly contributes to the successful functioning of the Writing Program. The program is in the process of implementing a completely redesigned 101 (the class formerly known as Expos), and Professor Martin has been an important part of the group piloting the new curriculum this academic year. As a testament to her contributions to this effort, the Writing Program hopes that she will serve as a facilitator for training orientations for faculty as the new curriculum is rolled out to all sections of 101 in Fall 2023. She also played an important role within the Writing Program in the shift to online instruction during Covid by helping to develop Canvas sites for the program and serving as the point person for several remote instruction discussion groups.
On top of being a highly skilled teacher and major contributor to programmatic efforts, Professor Martin also regularly seeks out opportunities to learn and grow as an instructor. She participated in the Writing Program’s Anti-Racist Pedagogy Workshop in 2020 and was awarded a Certificate in Lifelong Learning in Inclusive & Equitable Teaching in 2022. She also received a 2022-2023 Humanities-Plus Pedagogical Initiative Grant to develop her course on War. In all of these ways and more, it is abundantly clear that Professor Martin has made major contributions to undergraduate education in the Writing Program, and we are delighted to honor her with this award. As one student put it, “Overall, Professor Martin is an amazing professor and should continue to teach this class and be promoted as she is one of the best professors that Rutgers has.”
There are probably a lot of things that undergraduates do not want to be doing at 8:30 in the morning. Attending a 3-hour class with an enrollment of over 200 students is most likely at the top of that list. And despite that “luck of the draw” for Assistant Teaching Professor Ryan Rhodes’ Introduction to Cognitive Science course, he garnered a 4.88 on teaching effectiveness and a 4.75 for overall course quality, with over half of his class responding to the course evaluation. These scores are par for the course for all of the classes Professor Rhodes has taught. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that cognitive science is just inherently fascinating, but from the student comments, it is clear that most of the reason is Professor Rhodes. His teaching style is captivating. It draws the students in. It invites them—forces them—to be part of the discovery of the most fascinating and quirky aspects of cognitive science. The testimonials say it all:
One student wrote, “Going into the course I could not imagine sitting in a lecture hall at 8:30 until 11:30. But Professor Rhodes is honestly a master of class engagement (even if people are not verbally saying it) because everyone around me (including myself) felt like the content he covered was important and interesting in the way that he presents it.” And another praised: “Despite being a three–hour lecture, Professor Rhodes' classes are consistently the best lectures I go to. He presents the material in a very engaging manner, the PowerPoints are phenomenal, and the way he applies the material makes the topics extremely clear.” Still another wrote, “Ryan brought a lot of fun, quirky perspectives that made recitation fun whenever there were lulls.”
A student who was drawn in by the research reported, “I have never been more sucked into a subject as quickly and intensely as I have with cognitive science this semester thanks to Dr. Rhodes. He helped to keep us up with current and essential literature in the field with reading assignments rather than giving us one textbook, which has encouraged me to pursue studies in research and academics in cognitive science. Even with topics that he admitted he was not perfectly comfortable teaching, he engaged us and made them easy to understand.”
Another changed their major as a result (and they weren’t the only one): “This is perhaps my favorite class I've ever taken over my past three years in college, and I have decided to double major in cognitive science with computer science as a result. I wasn't sure how much I'd love this class considering it was at 8:30 am, but Professor Rhodes made the class fascinating, engaging, thought provoking, and so enjoyable that I actually looked forward to getting up in the morning to come to class.” When asked what they would do differently, much of the time, his students say NOTHING, other than not have the class at 8:30 am. As one student wrote, “Professor Rhodes IS the blueprint.”
Professor Rhodes has transformed the courses he teaches in the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science and draws students in to both the course content and the field. Since 2019, he has taught nearly 15 courses for RuCCS, with enrollments ranging from 14 to 210. The four courses in his rotation (the introductory and capstone courses, Language and Cognition, and Neural Structure of Language) are central to the major and minor, and are perennially popular courses, complemented by his YouTube videos, which have been described as “engaging and entertaining and lowkey educational.”
Above and beyond his teaching, Professor Rhodes volunteers for campus events like the Prospective Student Open House and Rutgers Day and advises the Cognitive Science Club. As the undergraduate director describes, Professor Rhodes is a “a positive force that readily draws in his audience.” He sure drew us in, and we’re proud to recognize him for his contributions to undergraduate education.
Linguistics is not a subject that high school students know much about. At Rutgers, many students stumble into the discipline when taking an introductory course to fulfill a Core requirement. For many students, once they take it, they’re hooked. Students who love languages realize they actually study language as a phenomenon itself. Students who love science realize they can apply their scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills to something they have taken for granted almost all their life. And nearly every student is struck by how friendly and welcoming the discipline is. In many cases, this starts with their first contact with their instructor. Chaoyi Chen has been this instructor for scores of students at Rutgers, teaching Introduction to Linguistic Theory five times, either as a TA leading a recitation section or on his own, as well as Syntax. From the moment he started this pedagogical journey in Fall 2020, through online and in-person courses, Chaoyi has consistently earned scores in the mid- to high 4s, consistently above the (already high) department mean.
These numbers are consistently bolstered by qualitative measures that convey what a careful, attentive instructor Chaoyi is, and how effective he is at connecting with, supporting, and engaging his students. In fact, it is not untrue to say that Chaoyi’s students adore him, referring to him as “absolute angel,” a “kind soul,” a “very sweet person,” as well as being “patient” and having a “positive attitude.” At the same time, he is recognized for having “instilled rigorous, mathematical thinking.” Students laud him for his ability to connect the material to linguistic research, to bring languages into a whole new light, to lead them to think critically about the languages they use and hear, and for making learning fun. Wrote one student, “He really wanted everyone to succeed and was so easy to talk to…He made a difficult class fun and lighthearted.” Another commented, “Chaoyi presented the material in a very logical and digestible manner. The notes were easy to follow and made complex concepts very simple and easy to understand…He also presented many opportunities for us to ask questions and get extra help, whether in class, over email, during office hours, or on Canvas discussion boards. He was one of the best instructors I've had during my college career.” His clear and timely support also extended outside of the class hours: “Professor Chen was very kind and helpful. Whenever I emailed him questions about the homework or about the material discussed in lecture, he would respond quickly to my emails and would provide detailed answers to my questions that helped me better understand the material, which I greatly appreciated.”
In Chaoyi students have found an instructor who creates an inclusive, safe space, where they can ask questions about a wholly new subject matter and a wholly new approach to thinking about language. Chaoyi invites them in and makes them feel welcome and seen. Said one student, “I was so nervous about this class knowing it was going to be very math oriented, but Chen was extremely patient and kind with everyone. The lessons are heavy, but he made them fun and enjoyable for such a challenging subject.” And another made it clear his impact extends beyond one class: “I transferred to Rutgers in the Fall and found myself with a 2.7 GPA after maintaining a 3.9 at community college. This past year, I've felt horrible about myself. I started the class pretty rocky, feeling like I wouldn't do well. Professor Chen was always so kind, helpful, patient, and flexible. He's helped me feel like this isn't the end all be all and I can still achieve all I want to achieve. Although, I might not come out of this class with an A, I'm coming out feeling like A’s are all I'll be striving and working for the rest of my academics. Can't wait!”
Alexandra Friedrich is recognized by her department as one of the stars in their recent graduate teaching cohorts. She is a native speaker of German and Russian, fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Hebrew, and has basic knowledge of Arabic and Turkish. Before coming to Rutgers, she taught modern Hebrew in Germany and German language in Mexico. Her students benefit from this rich and extensive linguistic and cultural expertise.
At Rutgers, she has taught a range of subjects and levels in German. She has excelled in these courses as an instructor who has rigorous standards yet is trusted by students and creates a comfortable classroom environment that supports students as they engage in the challenging task of language learning. As one student noted in a course evaluation, “Alexandra was very encouraging of all students and met them where they were. I felt very supported, encouraging me to grow.” Another student wrote, “Frau Friedrich is very patient and that helped me become more confident with the language and learn more.”
Alexandra’s faculty and fellow graduate student colleagues also praised her courses and instruction. They note that during classroom observations, her students are clearly relaxed but also focused and engaged. Her syllabi are detailed and well-organized, and as a result, students know exactly what is expected of them. Alexandra thoughtfully uses technological materials to supplement her other instructional techniques and content and is always ready and willing to pause or adjust her course plans in real-time based on students’ questions and needs. She is also regularly available to help her students outside of class. In one classroom observation report, a graduate student peer succinctly described Alexandra’s course as “a model class.” Her flexibility and responsiveness also enabled her to successfully adapt to the requirements of online teaching during the pandemic, which we all know was no easy task! One student described Alexandra’s course as “One of the very few classes that gives me motivation for online learning.”
Importantly, Alexandra is also open and responsive to constructive feedback and suggestions; this is the mark of an excellent teacher and something to be valued and appreciated not just in graduate students, but also in senior faculty members. She also regularly participates in the department’s non-mandatory professional development conferences for instructors teaching German, another sign of her commitment to high-quality undergraduate instruction.
In the words of her departmental nominator, “Alexandra Friedrich is a highly gifted, imaginative, organized, indefatigable and kind teacher.” It is clear that both her colleagues and students agree, and we are delighted to honor her with this award for distinguished contributions to undergraduate education.
Alice Martin is described in her nomination letter as one of the strongest longstanding Teaching Assistants in the English department. In addition to other courses, she has taught four sections of 101 in the Rutgers Writing Program. This is the introductory writing course that most students at Rutgers–New Brunswick are required to take in their first year, and it is, in the words of Alice’s nominator, “not known as the most popular course out there.” Given that students are often not terribly enthusiastic about having to take this course, it is especially remarkable that Alice’s average SIRS score for Teaching Effectiveness is 4.9, and her average score for Overall Course Quality is 4.58. She also has extremely strong scores for the courses she has taught outside of the Writing Program.
Students’ qualitative comments reinforce Alice’s strong quantitative SIRS scores, praising her enthusiasm, fairness, and compassion. One student in 101 described Alice as “Definitely my most enthusiastic professor this semester, and I’m an engineering major. Each class she made it a bit more interesting, and energy was great. Grading was fair and gave a good amount of time for assignments during the end. For my first semester of college, [she] really highlighted what a great professor looks like.” Another noted, “Overall, I loved this course and was able to learn a lot about writing academic papers and refining my writing style. I’ll miss it!” Note that the nominator italicized the words “I’ll miss it” in this student’s quote, reflecting how truly exceptional Alice’s student evaluations really are.
Students also appreciate Alice’s detailed feedback, her understanding of how to assist students when they face challenges, and her ability to encourage students to challenge themselves. As another student said, “She did a great job giving detailed and helpful feedback and was very enthusiastic about helping me better my writing and push my level so I could constantly improve while enjoying what I was writing about.”
Alice’s contributions to undergraduate education extend beyond the classroom. In 2019, she published an article entitled “Learning from their Stories: Incorporating Narrative Structure to Support Academically At-Risk Students” in Academic Advising Today. The article links literary analysis to student support, and Alice has continued to make contributions in the area of supportive pedagogy since that time. This Spring, for example, she co-founded and moderated the Rutgers Critical Pedagogies Working Group, which is a group of graduate students and faculty that come together periodically to discuss contemporary research about pedagogy, share resources about instruction, and workshop teaching-focused writing projects. The group notes that they “aim to provide support for anyone teaching or preparing to teach undergraduate students at Rutgers.”
It is clear that Alice has made significant contributions to undergraduate education, both within and outside of the classroom, that makes her well-deserving of this award.
Dr. Amir Aziz, who defended their dissertation in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies earlier this spring, is described by their nominator for this award as “…an exceptional teacher. They are one of the very best, at any rank, in a department known across the university for the quality of its teaching.” Having taught 10 online courses since Winter 2020, Dr. Aziz stands out for their thoughtful and creative approach to online instruction that utilizes a variety of course materials and activities and focuses on student engagement—both with each other and with the instructor.
In recognition of their excellence in online instruction, Amir was invited to be the key speaker at a workshop for graduate student instructors in WGSS last spring about designing online syllabi that work with, rather than in spite of, the asynchronous format. Amir presented an approach for creating highly accessible yet challenging syllabi through diversifying assignments, mixing academic and non-academic sources, structuring courses around concepts and ideas rather than around time periods or geography, and trauma-informed pedagogy.
Knowing that many students may not be familiar with key concepts in gender and race studies at the beginning of the semester, Dr. Aziz’s thoughtfully uses journalistic, video, and audio sources to supplement heavy academic material and build literacy in key concepts in gender and race studies in their courses. Course assessments are also based on student interaction and collaboration, and weekly assignments vary in content and delivery. This approach is noticed and appreciated by the students. As one said, “Professor Aziz took the time to make the course accessible as well as open to all the students and they were amazing at making sure we were all engaged as well as focused on the material being presented.”
Students’ comments also consistently praise Dr. Aziz for their detailed and constructive feedback. One student noted, for example, “Professor Aziz always left long and helpful comments on everything I submitted. This really helped me understand my mistakes better.” Another student said, “Professor Aziz was WONDERFUL! Not only did they provide great resources, clear instructions, and a very easy to follow course format—they responded to assignments with so much detail and made additional suggestions to further my own learning. I truly benefitted from their support and felt they challenged me to learn more and be better.”
In recognizing Dr. Aziz’s contributions to undergraduate education in SAS, it is also important to highlight their focus on inclusive and trauma-informed pedagogy. Most of the students they teach are from historically under-represented backgrounds, and many of the issues addressed in their courses have touched their students’ lives in some ways. As Dr. Aziz expresses in their teaching statement, “My use of trauma-informed pedagogy helps minimize re-traumatization in class, while enabling students to create moments of group affirmation. It promotes compassion and empathy as key tools for intellectual growth, giving students more agency in learning about challenging issues—a crucial aspect to factor into course assessment, as trauma and other unseen factors may affect student performance.”
In the asynchronous online space, it is especially impressive that Dr. Aziz is able to create an interactive, collaborative, and inclusive learning environment with a high level of instructor support and feedback. It is not surprising that students respond well to Dr. Aziz’s approach, with one saying “Professor Aziz will forever be my fav professor at RU and I am glad I was able to take this course with them.” We are delighted to honor Dr. Aziz’s contributions with this well-deserved Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Education.