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Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 4, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. -- What separates the great teachers from the good?
It is a question that can be debated endlessly without ever arriving at a definitive answer. However, examining the careers of the professors and instructors singled out for honors by NIU undergraduate students this year offers a pretty good outline for any such discussion.
While this year's winners teach very dissimilar topics, comments from their students and colleagues indicate that they have much in common. In addition to mastery of their chosen subject areas, they share in common the ability to challenge and engage students; they possess a willingness to work with students beyond the walls of the classroom; and last, but not least, they share a sincere love of the work that is teaching.
Winners of this year's Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award – Katharina Barbe, German; Lisa Finkelstein, psychology; and David Gunkel, communication – become the latest names in a line of outstanding professors dating back to 1966 to receive that award. Joe Bonomo of the English Department, winner of the Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction, has the distinction of being the first-ever recipient of that honor.
Both awards are intended to honor excellent undergraduate teaching in the university, encourage improvement of instruction and promote discussion among members of the university community on the subject of teaching. All of the winners were honored at an April 23 reception.
Here is a closer look at this year's winners:
Students in Katharina Barbe's German 202 classes not only can carry on a conversation in German; they can also bop along to the latest hip hop hit in Berlin .
“German 202 is the last course they are required to take (to fulfill their language requirement), so I try to keep it especially interesting, hoping to convince them to major or minor in German,” Barbe says of her unusual teaching tactic of having students translate hip hop tunes.
When those students are not rapping, Barbe has them watch German movies (tracing the history of the country since World War II), read German newspapers, read German literature and tells them stories of her childhood growing up in Berlin .
The result is a unique class that not only has students often coming back for more, but consistently giving Barbe some of the highest teaching marks in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, despite labeling her as a “tough grader.”
“I haven't found a textbook that meets my needs,” she says of the unusual conglomeration of teaching materials she employs in her classes (she teaches the full range of upper and lower division classes), admitting that her constantly shifting syllabi are due in part to her need to keep material fresh and challenging for herself. “If I get bored with material I can't teach it, so I am continually changing.”
Her goal, says Barbe, is to move students beyond conjugating verbs and submerge themselves not only in the language, but also in the culture from which it emerges.
“For lower-level students, I try to find a balance between perfect grammar and what you actually use,” she says. “The most important thing about learning a language is that it exposes you to another culture and shows you that there are many different ways of doing things.”
To further reinforce that lesson, Barbe also is a strong advocate of students spending a semester overseas, sometimes helping them land Fulbright scholarships or internships to make the experience more affordable.
“She embodies the nurturing, yet demanding, professor that undergraduates seek in order to negotiate successfully the confusing world of requirements, deadlines and options,” says student Kathy Love who served on the language department's nominating committee.
Barbe's dedication extends well beyond class hours.
She has directed three Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program projects, acts as division coordinator for German, Classics, Asian and Slavic, and is an active participant in the Foreign Language Residence Program. She also occasionally conducts programs to introduce elementary school students to foreign languages, and works with the Goethe-Institut Chicago to help support teachers of German in 13 Midwestern states.
“She is a passionate teacher whose work both inside and outside the classroom is an inspiration for students and colleagues alike,” says Anne Birberick, chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.
Despite those many commitments, Barbe still finds time to make annual visits to Berlin (along with her daughters, whom she is teaching German at home), where she spends time with nieces and nephews, immersing herself in the German culture just as she demands of her students. To do any less would be unfair to those students and to herself, she says.
“My teaching philosophy is borrowed from (the Czech writer and former president of the Czech Republic ) Vaclav Havel, who said, ‘Join the people who are looking for the truth and avoid those who have found it.' It means that you should always look for knowledge – you never should really stop – and that's what I try to do.”
Students who come to David Gunkel's classes in interactive media production expecting to spend all of their time coding and designing Web pages get more than they bargained for.
The classes have no shortage of bits and bytes, but Gunkel also forces students to step back from their work and view it in a much larger context, often prodding them along with observations from the likes of philosophers like Hegel, Kant or Descartes.
“It's not enough to just learn the programming and design,” says Gunkel of his classical approach to a contemporary topic. “Students have to understand the theoretical and historical aspects of the Internet. Your Web page is going to be used in a certain context, and students need to understand that if you are going to influence how people think you need to know the political and social positions of your audience. If you don't teach that, if you are just teaching people how to operate the technology, then you are only making them effective button pushers, not good problem solvers.”
That sort of big-picture thinking comes naturally to Gunkel, who came to academe as a philosophy student, earning a bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in that discipline (as well as a bachelor's in communication). However, while studying history's greatest thinkers he also was paying his tuition by working on the cutting edge of technology as a media tech on campus, and later as a designer of interactive media for an engineering firm.
As he continued down those disparate paths, he began to realize that there was a need to combine the two.
“It became increasingly clear as I went through graduate school that there was a real need for people who could not just operate the technology, but also address the philosophical, social and cultural aspects of what you did with it,” Gunkel says. “It appealed to me that it was a new frontier – it sparked both sides of my brain.”
Gunkel's success in bridging those two disparate areas is obvious in the students he teaches according to colleague Robert Brookey, who says he often can recognize Gunkel's former students. “Not only do they know how to build communication on the Web, they have a larger understanding of the implications of that communication,” he said.
Beyond that, Gunkel also has a gift for keeping the material he teaches fresh, relevant and interesting, his students say.
“He puts a framework around how to go about designing a Web site, even how to interact with clients,” says communication major Christopher Boughton, adding that Gunkel also models effective use of technology throughout his class. “He makes use of a wide range of multi-media presentations in his classes using video, slide shows an on-screen programming. Of course, his Web sites are excellent as well, providing links to helpful materials and a comprehensive semester plan. Little things like that add up to make his classes much more interesting.”
That commitment to his craft has helped make Gunkel consistently one of the highest rated professors in the department and a worthy recipient of the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.
“Year after year, students praised his organization, his enthusiasm and the way he gave them a real-world edge in dealing with issues of communication,” says former Chair of Communication Lois Self. “He expects a lot from students, but he gives a lot in return, and they appreciate that.”
Lisa Finkelstein isn't afraid to poke a little fun at herself if it will help her make a point. Don't believe her? Just ask her social psychology students who got a glimpse at her old prom photo.
“We were discussing how appearance is a part of social norms. Well, my prom was in the era of big hair, and I had some of the hugest hair in the world,” she says. “I laughed about the picture with my students and that got them comfortable and made them willing to join in the conversation.”
Such tactics are not unusual for Finkelstein, who often eschews lectures in favor of freewheeling conversations to illuminate the topic at hand. It is a style that has earned her high marks from students throughout her decade at NIU and has helped her garner the department's top teaching award three times.
The secret behind her success is that she enjoys her job. “I really love to teach. I think it's a privilege,” she says.
That attitude, say her colleagues, is evident in all Finkelstein does – and that is a long list. She is an active researcher, has participated in the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program and has advised dozens of undergraduates in independent study. She also has acted as an undergraduate adviser, mentors new faculty and coordinates the department's doctoral program in social and industrial-organizational psychology. Over the years she also has served as faculty adviser for the Student Psychological Association and as a member of the curriculum and standards committee and honors committee. She also has been elected to the executive committee of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
“She shows tremendous enthusiasm for teaching and is willing to devote extraordinary amounts of time to working with her students outside of the classroom, both of which truly set her apart.” says Charles Miller, chair of the Psychology Department.
Few students have benefited more from her commitment to teaching than Daren Protolipac.
After sitting through just one of Finkelstein's classes as a student, he asked her to oversee his honors capstone project. She not only agreed to take on that task, but quickly turned the talented student into a protégé.
Finkelstein invited him to participate in research, published a paper with him and guided him through the process of earning his master's and doctorate degrees. Today, thanks in no small part to Finkelstein's example, Protolipac holds a tenure track faculty position at St. Cloud State University, where he teaches undergraduate psychology classes, doing his best to emulate her in his own teaching.
“She was one of the first professors I ever had who broke away from lecturing, instead getting students involved in the learning process, and I try to do the same,” Protolipac says. “She was also very sociable and down to earth, not intimidating at all, and I try to teach that way too.”
Over the years, several other former students have credited Finkelstein's influence for their decision to pursue graduate level study of psychology. That, she says, is the highest form of flattery.
“When a student tells me that I have inspired him or her to pursue a life in academe, it is very exciting,” she says. “I try to demonstrate to them that academics aren't a bunch of weirdoes in ivory towers, but just normal people who are passionate about learning and research. To see them embrace that idea is very rewarding.”
Although new to campus last fall, Department of English Chair Deborah Holdstein quickly realized she had a valuable resource in Joe Bonomo.
A versatile teacher, Bonomo has demonstrated a willingness to take on courses ranging from freshman composition, to upper division courses on the American novel, to graduate level courses on literature and film. In nearly every class, he also garnered top reviews from his students, with evaluations consistently placing him in the top 5 percent within the department.
“Rarely do we find colleagues as willing (and, most importantly, able) to take such a student centered and program centered approach to their teaching schedules,” Holdstein says.
Bonomo's value to the department, his exceptional teaching abilities and the enthusiastic support of his students combined to make him the first-ever recipient of the Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction Award.
The award, created by the Committee for the Improvement of Undergraduate Education, is analogous to the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award. The only difference is that only non-tenure-track faculty are eligible for the Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction Award.
“Instructors play a very valuable role in our teaching mission here at NIU, and we are delighted to have this award to recognize the outstanding performance of the very best in the instructor ranks,” Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver says.
Bonomo came to NIU in 1995, along with his wife, Amy Newman, who is now an associate professor in the English Department. Bonomo, Ph.D. in 20th Century British and American literature with a specialization in creative writing, began teaching as an instructor that year.
From the start, he enjoyed the flexibility that allows him to teach classes dedicated to both his passions: writing and literature.
“Literature is one of the great pleasures of my life,” he says. “Every time we seriously read and reflect, it presents the world to us new again. It is a thrill to be able to present that gift to my students, to demonstrate to them that these books should matter to them in their daily lives.”
Still, Bonomo regards himself first and foremost as a writer and, even when teaching the classics, he approaches them from that vantage point.
“I try to come at it from the perspective of a writer who understands the writing process, not as someone who is a critic,” says the author of dozens of published personal essays and prose poems who has a couple of manuscripts in process and is working on a long-term project that chronicles the 30-plus-year history of garage rock legends The Fleshtones.
Most of that work, however, is reserved for summers, because teaching consumes most of his time during the rest of the year, a fact that is apparently appreciated by his students who give him almost universally high praise.
“He not only loves teaching, but he also is passionate about his subject matter,” says former student Rachel Sillar. “He obviously loves literature and the arts, and you can tell whenever he speaks about either. I found his passion to be contagious.”
Other students observed that Bonomo's teachings often transcended literature.
“He goes beyond encouraging studying and lessons to encourage a broader, worldly understanding of our surroundings,” says Alisa Prigge.
Bonomo's colleagues in the Department of English share similarly high opinions of him, Holdstein says.
“Dr. Bonomo contributes to our students, to the department and to the larger NIU community in ways that are truly above and beyond the call. We have come to expect it from him and to reap the benefits of his commitment to our students.”