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Exemplary Teachers - UM agency awards professors at 11 schools Mary Jacobs, Jan 27, 2012
PHOTO BY ALEXANDRA CRUMP/COURTESY OHIO WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY
Karen M. Poremski, associate professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, was one of 11 professors at UM-related colleges and universities honored with the denomination’s Exemplary Teacher Awards this fall.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Karen Poremski excels in the classroom, but her teaching often takes her—and her students—well beyond the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
The associate professor of English is passionate about Native American history and culture, and takes students on field trips to twice-annual pow-wow gatherings of Native Americans at a nearby state park. During spring break, students have been known to forgo relaxing on sunny beaches to follow Dr. Poremski to frigid South Dakota, where they help with building projects and other work at Rosebud Reservation.
“Karen just radiates enthusiasm,” said David O. Robbins, provost of Ohio Wesleyan. “She goes out of her way to be involved with students, both academically and in social mission.”
That enthusiasm has been noticed. Dr. Poremski was one of 11 professors at United Methodist-related colleges, universities and theological schools who received the Exemplary Teacher Awards from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry last fall.
The recognition, which includes a certificate and a $500 monetary award for each recipient, is the denomination’s way of honoring excellent teachers.
“They are relatively modest awards, but they do serve to recognize pedagogical excellence,” said the Rev. Gerald Lord, associate general secretary of GBHEM’s Division of Higher Education. And that’s important, he adds, because “high-quality higher education is in the Methodist DNA.”
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, placed a high value on education, and in the 19th century many U.S. education institutions were founded with Methodist money and Methodist initiative. Today, there are 120 United Methodist-related schools, colleges, universities, theological schools and affiliated organizations in the U.S.—the largest connection of private, non-Catholic institutions in the U.S., according to Dr. Lord. All told, the number of students attending those schools outnumbers that of any state school system in the U.S. “With that many students sitting at the feet of master teachers, if we can in some small way encourage pedagogical skills, I think that’s right at the heart of our mission,” Dr. Lord said.
All UM-affiliated institutions are eligible to nominate an Exemplary Teacher, with the exception of research institutions. (The denomination offers a separate honor, the Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award, for those schools.)
Faculty members are nominated by their institutions, based on exemplary teaching, service to students beyond the classroom and commitment to “values-centered education,” according to GBHEM officials.
Following those criteria, each campus defines its own selection process. Some involve students in the selection; others consider student evaluations as part of the process.
This fall’s recipients represent a broad range of academic disciplines—from English and education to Hebrew Bible and chemistry—but, Dr. Lord says, all share a gift and a passion for engaging students.
One awardee, Martin Gonzalez, associate professor of biology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, is clearly passionate about his subject. As one of the first members of his family to attend college, he recalls vividly the moment in an undergraduate class that sparked his fascination for biology.
A microbiology professor opened a sterile agar plate (a type of Petri dish), exposing it to the air, for a brief moment.
“At the next lecture, we got to see what had grown, and that plate was just teeming with life,” he said. “I went berserk. There’s life all around us, just floating on dust. It’s easy to get excited about this subject.”
When asked, Dr. Gonzalez wasn’t sure what makes his teaching so special. But he did say that, when he lectures, he sometimes folds himself on top of his lectern and moves his entire body, to help students visualize how a protein functions. He’s been known to show up at the library late at night, to assist study groups who are struggling with an assignment.
“Students are only going to be excited about the material if the person describing it is excited,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “And I will do everything I can to help them learn about science.”
Eric Waggoner, associate professor of American Literature and Cultural Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va., was similarly stumped to explain what makes his teaching “exemplary.” But colleagues often turn to him for advice on teaching, and students describe his style as both challenging and fun. Dr. Waggoner has published on topics as varied as freshman composition, Ernest Hemingway, Bob Dylan and the rock band U2.
“I try to bring students into the conversation,” he said of his classroom style. “It’s about the exchange of ideas.”
When students wander into Dr. Poremski’s office, they will often find her occupied by an old-fashioned spinning wheel, a hobby she took up to relieve stress.
“All of the thread and fabric available before 1830 in the U.S. was spun by hand, which astounds me,” she says. “I tell my students that one unmarried daughter would typically do the family’s spinning, and thus the term ‘spinster’ came along.”
Spinning also relates to Dr. Poremski’s area of specialty, early American literature. As a result of research in that subject, she developed a fascination for Native American literature in early America and, later, contemporary Native American literature. The field trips to the pow-wow and the reservation are outgrowths of that passion.
And it’s infectious. Dr. Robbins says that many students who have joined her on trips to South Dakota have expressed an interest in going back to the reservation and continuing their study of Native American culture, literature and history.
The trips also serve to raise students’ awareness. Many are shocked by the kind of poverty they witness at Rosebud.
“If they haven’t been to a reservation before, they haven’t seen what it’s like,” Dr. Poremski said. “The housing is substandard. You might see a two-bedroom house with a family of 12 living there, with the plumbing and furnace broken, no insulation, and it’s 20 degrees outside.”
Jane Harris, a professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., and another award recipient, has been teaching Religious Studies for 21 years, but, she says, it never grows old.
“I constantly change the texts we read,” said Dr. Harris. “I continue to learn, myself.” This past year, she assigned Rob Bell’s Love Wins, a controversial bestseller asserting that a loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to hell. The goal was to expose students to a trend in the contemporary American religious landscape as well as “a tremendous national conversation,” she said.
Dr. Harris is convinced that, in teaching students about different religious beliefs, she’s helping them regardless of the careers they eventually choose.
“Being able to work with folks who have different views of the world will be very important for people in the 21st century,” she said.
Colleges and universities typically promote faculty members based on their teaching, research and publications, but at some schools, “the balance is sometimes tipped too far in the direction of research and publication,” Dr. Lord says. The Exemplary Teacher Awards, he says, reward top classroom teaching, which is “crucial to students’ intellectual, emotional and moral development.”
Dr. Harris echoes that.
“To me, the award says that teaching is important, and what happens in the classroom matters,” she said.
Every recipient interviewed for this story expressed surprise at receiving the honor.
“It was really kind of a silencing moment . . . to have this kind of peer recognition, when there are so many people on the faculty whom I admire,” Dr. Waggoner said.
Dr. Poremski insists she has dozens of colleagues at Ohio Wesleyan whose work is equally deserving of recognition—but she appreciates the honor.
“It came at the right time,” she said. “Near the end of the semester, sometimes you wonder if you’ve been effective at all.” Winning the award, she added, “is a nice affirmation of the effort and the care with which I do my job.”
Dr. Robbins says that good teaching, like Dr. Poremski’s, is part of the college’s mission and of a liberal arts education.
“Karen’s not just a scholar, she’s a great teacher and she’s service-oriented,” said Dr. Robbins. “When you combine that, you have a person who’s making an impact on campus, with students, and the world.”
And that’s why, even at a time when denominational resources are scarce, Dr. Lord believes the Exemplary Teacher awards are important.
“We ought to do anything we can, as a church, to underscore the importance of effective pedagogy,” he said, “because that’s who we are, dating right back to Mr. Wesley.”
Exemplary Teacher Awards
The following faculty members were selected in the fall of 2011 by their institutions for the Exemplary Teacher Award. (Some institutions give the award during spring semester; others make the award in the fall.)
• Beth Myers, professor of English, Adrian College • Sandra Young, assistant professor of English, Columbia College • Laura Hainsworth, associate professor of Chemistry, Emory & Henry College • M. Jane Harris, professor of Religious Studies, Hendrix College • Jennifer Lorenzen, assistant professor of Education, Nebraska Wesleyan University • Karen Poremski, associate professor of English, Ohio Wesleyan University • Karin Warren, associate professor and Herzog Family Chair of Environmental Studies, Randolph College • Martin Gonzalez, associate professor of Biology, Southwestern University • Lisa Dryden, professor of Education and director of graduate programs in Education, Texas Wesleyan University • Denise Dombkowski, professor of Hebrew Bible, Wesley Theological Seminary • Eric Waggoner, associate professor of English, West Virginia Wesleyan College.