Martha D. Cooper, a professor in the Department of Communication who earned NIU’s highest teaching honor, the Presidential Teaching Professorship, was chosen to be the representative of our Journalism Award.
Described as brilliant by peers and students alike, Cooper, was widely respected and loved on campus. A highly regarded researcher, she specialized in the area of rhetorical theory and criticism and published two books on the topic, as well as numerous essays and articles. In recent years, she also gained a top national reputation in post-modern ethics.
But her first love was teaching. A gifted lecturer, she possessed a unique ability to make the complex clear and was known to go the extra mile for students, often mentoring them one-on-one in both academic and personal matters. Their praise led to her being honored in 1999 with NIU’s Presidential Teaching Professorship, the university’s top teaching honor.
Northern Today asked what advice she would give to rookie classroom instructors on how to become a great teacher.
Martha Cooper replied: "Remember students are people. They’re not just an audience or some inanimate objects. They deserve your respect and engagement and compassion. I think it’s fundamental that you like your students."
"She’s brilliant, but at the same time she’s very personable and very accessible to her students," says grad student Elizabeth Otto, who thinks Cooper should be awarded a certificate in psychology. "We can’t count the number of times we go into the department and she’s there with the box of Kleenex ready to talk about the stress of being a grad student."
Otto says she was drawn to NIU by professors such as Cooper. "I was looking for someplace I could have a personal relationship with these big name professors. Not every graduate program offers you that opportunity."
Cooper is the type of teacher who spends hours of one-on-one time with students and readily offers them her home phone number. Yet she still finds time for research.
"My research informs my teaching and my teaching informs my research," she says.
Her philosophy in regarding students can be summed up in three words: believe in them. "I trust and respect their potential and I find that they usually rise to the level of my expectations," Cooper says. "Sometimes they’re surprised by what they’re able to accomplish."
Cooper uses an extensive collection of news reports, documentaries and films to introduce issues of ethics and diversity in class, weaving theory into real-life experience. She encourages, facilitates and clarifies discussion points, all the while creating a comfortable environment for participation.
For Cooper, it’s a labor of love. "I fell in love with teaching the first semester that I taught," she says.
"I love to watch people learn," she adds. "You can see when they get it. When they cross the threshold, there’s that insightful moment. I get a lot of joy out of watching my students and knowing they’re going to make a difference in the world."
Cooper was born Oct. 1, 1954 in Bluefield, W.Va., the daughter of Rupert and Thelma Blake Cooper. A high school valedictorian, Martha Cooper went on to West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she graduated summa cum laude. She earned her master’s degree in 1978 from NIU, receiving the Paul Crawford Outstanding Student Award, and her Ph.D. in 1984 from Penn State University, where she was awarded the National Communication Association’s Outstanding Dissertation Award.
Cooper returned to Northern in 1984 as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and was later promoted to full professor. Richard Johannesen, professor of communication and former chair of the department, recalled recruiting Cooper as a student.
"She was probably the brightest graduate student I’ve ever taught," Johannesen said. "When she returned to NIU as a faculty member, she very quickly became one of the most respected faculty in our department. She had a marvelous ability to connect with students and challenge them to perform at a higher level."
From 1989 to early this year, Cooper served as director of graduate studies in communication. More than half of the 30 graduate students she advised went on to earn Ph.D.s.
"She just loved life and her work, especially teaching," said Lois Self, chair of the Department of Communication.
"She represented a balance of all that’s best in our profession—passionate and nurturing teaching, outstanding scholarship, and dedicated service to the university, community and the discipline," Self said. "She leaves a huge void but wonderful legacy in the Communication Department. She will be both sorely missed and fondly remembered by us all."
In addition to the Presidential Teaching Professorship, Cooper received many honors, including induction into the Golden Key National Honor Society. She also was active in the community, serving as a founding board member of the DeKalb Area Women’s Center; a steering committee member for the Interfaith Network for Peace and Social Justice; and director of college and university relations for the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Women.
A Martha Cooper Memorial Endowment for Support of Instruction in Graduate Teaching fund was established after her death. The endowment will fund an annual stipend recognizing outstanding performance and peer leadership of one or more graduate teaching assistants in NIU’s Department of Communication. The endowment also will support mentoring of first-year graduate assistants by their more experienced peers or faculty and will be used to sponsor programs that foster excellence in teaching.
"She actively engaged her students and colleagues and prompted us to think about how much we care for the profession of teaching and what we could do to improve as teachers," Self said. "She was generous with her ideas, her tips and her mentoring of peers and students, so this seems like a fitting way to ensure her legacy."