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Economist, Film and Television Profs Win Teaching Awards

Annual Gitner and Scholar-Teacher of the Year nods


There’s an occupational hazard when you teach film and TV production, Charles Merzbacher says: “Watching movies takes time.” Viewing students’ work gobbles up gobs of hours in traditional classes. So Merzbacher, a College of Communication associate professor of film and television, tweaks tradition with technology.

“When BU rolled out the MyMedia platform for sharing and storing streaming video, I quickly got on board,” he says. Now he and students watch and respond to the latter’s projects on their own time, freeing up class for instruction—and incidentally, Merzbacher also uses tech in the classroom, from industry-standard film production software to YouTube and SurveyMonkey.

“When it comes to technology,” he says, “I am the opposite of a snob.”

That un-snobbish attitude has earned Merzbacher one of the University’s top teaching accolades. Today, he will receive BU’s annual Gerald and Deanne Gitner Family Award for Innovation Teaching with Technology. The award comes with $10,000 and “celebrates innovation that results in positive learning outcomes for undergraduate students and that is recognized or adopted by faculty colleagues within or outside Boston University.”

At the same ceremony, Robert Margo, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of economics, will receive the 2018 Provost’s Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award (formerly the United Methodist Church Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award). Margo has pioneered the study of race’s influence on economic development.

The awards will be presented before an invited audience at the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering.

Merzbacher joined the BU faculty full-time in 1998. The Williams College and USC–educated filmmaker currently teaches Screen Language, which he calls “a gateway course” on motion picture fundamentals, and Production 1. Students use cameras, recorders, and editing software in both. Yet for a man who is being honored for innovative use of technology in the classroom, he confesses that he is “not infatuated with technology.

“If anything, I’m a pretty profound techno-skeptic,” Merzbacher says. “I accept that technology is fundamental to our lives.” Innovating with it in education, he says, guarantees that “my students and I master technology rather than the other way around.”

Studying the evolution of racial economic inequality from the Civil War to the present, Margo says, is “a very complex subject.” After a career immersed in the topic (he came to BU in 2005 after teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Colgate, and Vanderbilt), perhaps the key insight he’s gleaned is “the central role played by African American parents in fostering economic mobility for their children across multiple human generations…and in the face of enormous obstacles put in their way by the broader society.”

This semester, he’s teaching Economic Institutions in Historical Perspective, focusing on changes over time in the American economy, including industrialization, urbanization, racial inequality (sadly, changing less), and the evolving economic role of women. The master’s-level class is “quite a bit closer to PhD level,” he says.

His award citation notes Margo’s prolific scholarly output; he has published 160 articles, book chapters, and book reviews, as well as authoring or coauthoring half a dozen books. It says further that Margo “developed the economic history option for PhD students and pioneered the teaching of economic history and race,” as well as “created two courses cross-listed in economics and African-American studies.”

“There are no courses on these topics in any other economics department in the United States or the world,” says Bart Lipman, economics department chair.

Margo’s teaching caliber matches that of his research; one student quoted in the citation calls studying with Margo “one of the best decisions I have made in my life.”

Margo earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan and a master’s and PhD at Harvard.

The Provost’s Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award comes with $5,000 and is given annually to faculty who “contribute to the art and science of teaching and learning.”

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Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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