CAS Announces Annual Teaching and Advising Awards

May 5, 2010

Dean Sapiro recently announced the winners of the 2010 annual College teaching and advising awards. These awards recognize professors who excel at communicating complex ideas, motivating students to engage more deeply, listening to their academic and career concerns, and giving thoughtful guidance. The winners of the Templeton Prize for Excellence in Student Advising are: Binyomin Abrams, Chemistry; John Celenza, Biology; and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, Classical Studies. The winners of the teaching prizes are: Robert Pollack, Mathematics (Gitner Award for Distinguished Teaching, endowed by Gerald Gitner, CAS’66); Stephanie Nelson, Classical Studies (Neu Family Award for Excellence in Teaching, endowed by Richard Neu, CAS’61, and his family); and Giselle Khoury, Modern Languages and Comparative Literature (Frank and Lynne Wisneski Award for Excellence in Teaching).

The six award winners all received rave reviews from their students:

Binyomin Abrams, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, does research in molecular dynamics and teaches introductory chemistry for both concentrators and non-concentrators. He is also well-known among his students for his half-hour advising appointments, which usually, but not always, take place in his office at the appointed time, but may also take place whenever a student has a question that needs a “thoughtful and well-informed answer,” whether about chemistry classes to take, plans for grad school, or even general academic interests. One student relates that his advising appointments always started with planning classes, but sooner or later got around to general interests, plans for graduate school, and concluded by putting class registration into the context of his entire undergraduate path.

John “Chip” Celenza, an associate professor of biology and director of the Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, does research in plant development and teaches genetics. To his 46 advisees, however, he is known as the “most approachable professor in the known Universe” and someone who “truly cares about helping students with academics and just about anything.” When students enter his office, filled to the brim with papers, journals, and exams, he makes them feel that at that moment they are the most important thing in the room, and that they can talk about anything, whether “course content, applications, job and research opportunities, or medical school.” After the meeting, it is not unusual for an email to arrive with another thought about an opportunity or resource.

Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, an assistant professor of classical studies and a scholar of the religion and culture of the Roman Empire, teaches courses in classical civilization, Roman history and religion, and Latin. As an advisor, she is known as an “approachable, understanding, and genuinely interested” friend to students, who will offer her “generous soul” to all students. One recommendation related that “Professor V went above and beyond the call of duty” when the student was commencing a long-term hospital stay. “I panicked about my academic situation—what I would do about classes, what about study abroad, whether I could graduate on time, etc. She worked with me in the best way possible, even over her cell phone, alleviating my anxiety and assuaging my fears. She helped me manage my academic responsibilities in this really difficult time. She is one of the most supportive, compassionate, and caring individuals, and I am blessed to have her as my advisor.”

Robert Pollack, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, is a number theorist whose inspired teaching moves effortlessly between introductory calculus and upper-level classes in algebra and number theory. His student recommendations are exceptional not only for their number and enthusiasm, but also because they come from every kind of student in every class, whether undeclared students filling a requirement or seniors heading off to graduate school in mathematics. And sometimes he magically converts one to the other; one student recommender who was not sure about what he wanted to do in life got so enthusiastic after a discussion about what can go wrong in the proof that 0=0 that he realized that he loved math and became a math major. It is also striking to have so many recommendations from students who don’t like the subject but love the professor: “I really do not like math at all, and am not good at it, but Professor Pollack does an exceptional job and this is the best math class I have ever taken. I’m thinking of taking another class from him.”

Stephanie Nelson, an associate professor of classical studies, has published widely on Greek and Roman literature and the classical tradition, and teaches courses on Greek and Roman culture and in the Core Curriculum. As a lecturer, she is known for her “remarkable knack for finding that angle that can command students’ interest while engaging and expanding their critical capacities” and for “teaching Plato like a philosopher and Homer like a poet.” Her Core discussions are lively exchanges between kindred souls discovering how great literature makes meaning in our lives. And, as one student related, her teaching philosophy is not limited to the classroom: “She is the quintessential example of a teacher who wants her students to succeed. I don’t know how she does it, but she makes herself available anytime to discuss papers, class material, etc. Pretty much everything and anything.”

Giselle Khoury, senior lecturer and head of the Arabic Language Program, is described by her students as “amazing” and “uplifting”; her powers of explanation are singled out by student after student for highest praise. “Arabic has not been so difficult because she is a fantastic teacher,” writes one; another remarks, “She really gets the class to participate and is very enthusiastic about the material. Amazing course!” Some teachers are high-energy without necessarily always inspiring learning, but not this one: “She is just always excited to be teaching and made us excited to learn.” The consistency with which students in every class remark on the enjoyableness of Professor Khoury’s courses must be read together with the near-universal student agreement (also amply documented in the student comments) that our Arabic courses are among the most challenging courses they ever take at BU.

The Templeton Family Student Advising Fund provides awards to faculty members who demonstrate the strongest commitment to the personal and academic develop of their students. The fund was established with gifts from John and Josephine Templeton as a measure of their gratitude to the dedicated members of the Boston University faculty who taught, advised, and nurtured their daughter, Jennifer Simpson Templeton (CAS’09). While Jennifer was pursuing her bachelor of arts degree at CAS, her parents recognized the excellent teachers who found time to give their daughter the personal counseling, guidance, and advice she needed to succeed.

The three teaching awards recognize excellent and distinguished teaching in the broadest sense, including classroom performance, course and curriculum development, advising, and enhancement of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Although excellence in undergraduate teaching is essential, excellence in graduate-level teaching strengthens nominations.

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