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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 12, 2005
DeKalb — Good teaching opens minds, inspires thought and molds leaders.
Proof of success can come through following where students go, what they achieve and how they make their own differences. Yet proof also can come from listening to what former students say about their former professors.
Such is the case with Northern Illinois University’s annual Presidential Teaching Professors, chosen with particular emphasis on the words of those they took under their wing.
This year’s Presidential Teaching Professors – Jeffrey Chown, from the Department of Communication; William Koehler, from the School of Music; and Parviz Payvar, from the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology – are popular educators.
“We have, as always, picked some of our leading educators on campus to recognize their contribution to our major mission of teaching our students,” NIU Provost J. Ivan Legg said. “I wish we had more Presidential Teaching Professorships to give because we have so many good faculty on campus.”
Begun in 1990, Presidential Teaching Professorships recognize outstanding teachers among the faculty. Each receives a $2,000 boost in base salary as well as a grant of $5,000 per year for their four-year appointment to help improve their teaching. After four years, they become Distinguished Teaching Professors.
Here is a closer look at this year’s three.
In the summer of 1994, Lori Liggett made a decision that would dramatically alter the course of her life: She took her first Jeff Chown course, a study-abroad program in Irish culture and film.
“It changed my life,” says Liggett, who had been working as a marketing professional in Washington, D.C.
“Dr. Chown convinced me that I had what it took to get a master’s degree and that NIU was the place to do it,” she says. Within six months, Liggett had moved to DeKalb and enrolled at NIU. Today she is working full-time as an instructor at Bowling Green State University and nearing completion of her doctorate.
“I model Dr. Chown’s teaching style,” Liggett adds. “He is comfortable in the classroom, accessible, pro-student and passionate about the subject matter, yet he’s also very rigorous.”
As a professor of communication and director of the department’s graduate studies, Chown has touched the lives of thousands of students. He specializes in film studies, teaching courses that range from large undergraduate lecture halls to small graduate seminars, and serves on as many as a dozen graduate committees each year. His students have gone on to work in Hollywood, at CNN and at universities across the country.
On campus and beyond, however, Chown is perhaps best known for producing award-winning, Ken Burns-style documentaries with his students, including “Barbed Wire Pioneers,” “DeKalb Stories” and “John Peter Altgeld: The Eagle Remembered.” The developing tradition of documentary filmmaking has served to recruit students in media studies to NIU.
“Jeff is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known, and one of the most selfless,” says colleague Gary Burns, who has taught alongside Chown. “He makes each course a work of art. Students come here because of Jeff, they study film because of him, and they stay here and finish because of him. I’ve seen this happen many times.”
Chown began teaching at NIU in 1982, the same year he earned his doctorate in American studies from the University of Michigan. In 1988, he won the university-wide Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award. The following year he was named a Fulbright Scholar to Ireland with an appointment at Dublin City University. That experience led him to initiate the Media and Culture in Ireland program, which is entering its 14th year.
Students flock to Chown’s courses even though the work is challenging.
Upper-level classes typically begin with 15-minute quizzes on assigned readings, followed by lectures during which Chown asks students to respond to pointed questions. He is a proponent of problem-based learning, which demands that students acquire critical knowledge and use it to solve problems.
Chown’s own willingness to take on new courses and constantly change old ones, despite increased workloads, speaks to his teaching philosophy. “Don’t bore yourself,” he says. “There is nothing more deadening in a classroom than a teacher who has lost interest in the subject.”
Chown’s latest documentary, “Lincoln and the Black Hawk War,” will premiere at 8 p.m. April 28, in the Visual Arts Building auditorium. He has two other documentaries currently in the works.
The piano man
During William Koehler’s younger and occasionally stubborn days, he sometimes rejected the guidance of his teachers.
But as years came and went, Koehler often would discover those lessons lingering in far corners of his mind, each concept glimmering with logic and eager for application.
Now the professor in the School of Music wonders whether some of his teachings will become long-lasting pieces of advice that poke through and blossom for different compositions on different days in different places.
“It’s so hard to predict what the long-term result of our teaching is,” says Koehler, who four years ago won the university’s highest honor in the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. “It’s interesting and frustrating to me at the same time. Teaching is so long-range in some ways, indefinite in its outcomes.”
The humble Koehler, who came to NIU in 1985, wears many hats.
He gives weekly private lessons to seven students, is an accompanist for the Opera Workshop as well as student and faculty soloists and coordinates undergraduate advising for music majors. In the past decade he has taught piano majors, piano ensemble, group piano classes and piano literature survey courses.
On Sunday mornings, Koehler shares his talent at First United Methodist Church of DeKalb, where he has served as pianist for 11 years. The “spiritual and emotional” benefits of the job “makes me a better pianist and, hopefully, a better teacher.”
Former students would believe so.
“Professor Koehler guided me through my studies while I was undergoing extensive chemotherapy treatment for large cell lymphoma,” says Jeffrey J. Peller, K-5 music educator and music technology chair in Naperville Community Unit School District 203. “He was able to encourage and guide me when my right arm was badly damaged and useless from the chemotherapy through a successful senior piano recital playing piano literature for the left hand only.”
Koehler is careful to consider his words when speaking about himself, declaring it impossible – or perhaps impolite – to ponder why his teaching leaves such an impression.
He describes his approach as “a constant level of energy, of sincerity to teaching, of consistency to the teaching.” Lessons in his office, with its two Steinway & Sons grand pianos side by side, are like a “laboratory” that offers “a sense of the unexpected.”
“The fascination of sharing musical ideas with students is a two-way street. I’m learning from their musical ideas as well,” he says. “This will give me the chance to learn more about how others teach and to learn more about the aspects of the music I teach in ways that so far I can’t define. I have a challenge to continue to investigate specific ways to make my teaching more efficient.”
Winning a Presidential Teaching Professorship surprised him.
“I can sincerely say that I had a feeling of gratitude,” he says, “but I’m also very aware that I’m surrounded here by so many first-rate teachers who are equally worthy of this award.”
Parviz Payvar attributes much of his success in teaching to simply following the Golden Rule.
“When I started out, I was teaching students just five or six years younger than myself, so I tried to give them what I wished I had experienced,” says Payvar, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
For Payvar, that meant – and still means – making himself extraordinarily available to meet with students at any time of day, always looking for ways to make difficult material more accessible and finding ways to pull the best possible performance out of each student.
That formula seems to have worked quite well.
Over the last five years alone, Payvar’s students, his departmental peers and his colleagues throughout the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology have presented him with six awards for outstanding teaching and service, including Faculty of the Year for both teaching and service to students. Added to that list now is recognition from the university as a whole as a Presidential Teaching Professor.
Payvar came to NIU in 1988, hired as chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department, a post he held until 2000. Prior to that, he spent eight years as a researcher for Borg Warner, and eight years teaching at universities in his native Iran.
Colleagues and students universally praise Payvar as an instructor who has an authoritative grasp of the material he teaches, presenting it in a manner that helps ensure not just success on tests, but also in careers.
“He doesn’t just roll through the material he teaches, he wants students to understand it and be able to apply the knowledge he passes on,” engineering student David Guetschow says. “He wants us to become professionals when we graduate, and he seems to really want us to succeed.”
While his classroom performance is much admired, most say that what truly sets Payvar apart is his willingness to put forth extra effort to work with students outside of the classroom. Whether they want help with class work (from classes he teaches, or even those of colleagues), career advice or personal development, Payvar’s door is always open.
“He is always willing to help students and provide them the benefit of his knowledge, experience and mentorship,” says CEET Acting Dean Promod Vohra.
Such generosity often leads to lines outside of Payvar’s door, but students don’t seem to mind.
“He is the only professor that I will wait for more than 20 minutes to ask him a question, because I know that my time will be well spent,” student Louise Schalasky says.
Payvar, who is described as an always cheerful and energetic presence in the hallways of the CEET building, says that such dedication is a two-way street.
“Students sometimes say they are motivated or inspired by my class. What they don’t realize is that I am also inspired by them. I am equally motivated to do my best when I see the efforts made by an adult student with children to make it to my 9 a.m. class,” Payvar says. “I don’t feel that the students owe me anything. They have given me the honor of teaching them. I enjoy this job, so it works out fine for both of us.”
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