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April 12, 2011

Harvey Blau, Murali Krishnamurthi, Greg Long named 2011 Presidential Teaching Professors

Harvey Blau
Harvey Blau

Murali Krishnamurthi
Murali Krishnamurthi

Greg Long
Greg Long

DeKalb, Ill. — “The art of teaching,” says the late Mark van Doren, a professor of English at Columbia University for more than 40 years, “is the art of assisting discovery.”

Such is the mission of this year’s class of Presidential Teaching Professors, who share a deep commitment to creating and nurturing comprehension and knowledge despite their separate disciplines and colleges.

Harvey Blau, a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is the veteran of the group with more than 40 years of service at NIU and legions of alums teaching in U.S. classrooms.

Murali Krishnamurthi, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering within the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, pulls double-duty as director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

And Greg Long, a professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders within the College of Health and Human Sciences, is the leader of NIU’s first comprehensive baccalaureate review in more than a quarter-century.

“Teaching, if not the most important thing we do here, is certainly the most important thing we do with our students, and the Presidential Teaching Professors are the best of the best,” Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver said.

“Harvey Blau, Murali Krishnamurthi and Greg Long have been identified and supported by their peers for these awards, and I am proud and impressed by the commitment of these professors to not only teaching but to improving teaching.”

The NIU Presidential Teaching Professorships were established in 1991 to recognize and support faculty who excel in the practice of teaching.

Recipients of this award have demonstrated their commitment to and success in the many activities associated with outstanding teaching. The recipients receive budgetary support and release time for the enhancement of their teaching skills.

After four years as a Presidential Teaching Professor, each is designated a Distinguished Teaching Professor.

Ongoing learning ‘one small step at a time’

It’s ironic that a mathematician such as Harvey Blau often finds that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

But Blau’s educational philosophy, some of it formed on basketball courts and in musical rehearsal spaces, embraces just that.

“I volunteered as a basketball coach for my wife’s teenaged special education students during the first years after we came to Illinois. In this role, I realized the importance of teaching literally one small step at a time,” Blau says.

“I was impressed by the Suzuki system of music instruction when my children studied violin. The curriculum separates, teaches, reinforces and then integrates every relevant component of technique and musicality, and is structured so that kids have fun,” adds Blau, who also applies that same technique to the choir that he founded and continues to direct in his local Jewish congregation.

And so it is in Blau’s classroom that connected increments of learning are most effective.

Quizzes each class period help students to measure how well they are understanding and mastering content.

Those “kept us on our toes and inspired us to immediately apply what we had just learned,” says Lisa Grilli, an instructor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a former student of Blau’s. “It created a buzzing atmosphere of ongoing learning.”

“Professor Blau challenges students to think about problems at a range of difficulties so that everyone learns in his class,” student Ashley Case says. “If a student needs to see a second example of a particular concept, then he is willing and able to provide one.”

When students are puzzled in the classroom, Blau gladly starts over and clarifies each step of the solution. When students pose questions about the homework, he offers hints rather than answers.

When students are struggling, he offers to hold out-of-class seminars. When the professor returns graded homework, it is covered in his valuable feedback, positive and constructive.

“It’s labor-intensive, but effective,” he says. “My piano teacher in college gave me a small wooden mouse with big ears as a reminder to listen when I practiced. I try to listen to what my students are telling me in their responses, and to how my teaching is being received.”

Blau, a member of NIU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences faculty since 1969, earned his bachelor’s degree at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and completed his master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale.

He has written study notes for several NIU math courses and, when asked to take over a geometry course required of all mathematics education undergraduate majors, he revised the course materials and then wrote what has become the text.

Blau also designed, wrote and taught a graduate-level course in geometry, numbers and algebra for the department’s new master’s of science in teaching program with a specialization in middle school mathematics education.

Blau is an active research mathematician with more than 50 publications that include joint projects with colleagues in Israel, Germany and China. He has supervised four NIU Ph.D. dissertations, and has four current Ph.D. students.

He created and organizes his department’s yearly math contest, advised the Math Club and has escorted various student groups to the annual meeting of the Illinois section of the Math Association of America.

In 1993, he won the university’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award.

“The greatest motivation I can give students is the knowledge that they are becoming better at doing something useful and important,” Blau says. “Of course, human limitations can impede progress. Nurture won’t always trump nature. But I believe that any good teacher must proceed as though it will.”

‘He is never too busy to help his students’

Murali Krishnamurthi learned more than industrial engineering in college.

The life’s lesson – to teach the “whole” student – came as he was struggling financially, eating only one meal a day, teetering on the verge of homelessness and preparing to drop out of school.

A caring professor noticed – and made a difference.

“He invited me to his office, made me open up about my difficulties, wrote me a check on the spot for rent and groceries without any questions asked, and helped me get through my difficulties until I was able to get back on my feet,” Krishnamurthi says.

“I (now) make it a point to get to know each student in my class, let them know that I am available for them to talk to me regardless of what the issue is, listen to them without judgment and help them with what I can.”

Krishnamurthi, who came to NIU in 1991, recognizes that teaching is about student-learning. He inspires and motivates students to exercise their full potential: “As the Pygmalion principle suggests, students are more likely to do well if they know that their teachers believe in them.”

He also teaches students to “learn how to learn.”

“Teaching is not about dumping information or finishing the syllabus, regardless of whether students are learning or not,” he says. “It is about facilitating their learning process so that they are capable of mastering the subject matter and continuing that process on their own in the long run.”
Graduates of his courses affectionately call him “Dr. K.” One alum even gave her child the middle name of “Murali.”

“He is never too busy to help his students,” graduate Marissa A. Vallette says. “He always found time to have me come into his office where I was able to get the extra help I needed. I could always count on Dr. K for advice, whether it was helping me choose a master’s project topic, preparing me to present at an international conference or writing a letter of recommendation for me when I was applying to doctoral programs.”

Nonetheless, he is a taskmaster in the classroom.

“Dr. Krishnamurthi kept us on our toes with many surprise quizzes to ensure we assimilated the material cohesively,” says alum Shanthi Muthuswamy. “He had very rigorous standards with report-writing and he refused to accept subpar work … it has had a positive impact on my career, for the managers and my clients always appreciate well-structured, objective-oriented reports.”

Krishnamurthi earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Madras in his native India. He completed a master’s degree at Ohio University and his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.

In the summer of 1998, he designed and taught NIU’s first fully online course, acquiring and using the necessary technology without any centralized support.

That fall, he added a second responsibility atop his teaching: director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, where he is humbled by the opportunity to promote effective teaching strategies to his colleagues.

But students and their education remain Job No. 1.

He is passionate about helping international students acclimate to the United States. He also established and served as faculty sponsor to the NIU chapter of Alpha Pi Mu, the industrial engineering honor society, which earned national recognition in only its second year.

And, amazingly, he is walking in the shoes of those he teaches.

“Since fall 2008,” he says, “I have been taking courses from 100- to 300-levels to reorient myself to being in the classroom as a student.”

‘A refreshing zest for advocacy and empowerment’

Call Greg Long an advocate.

He literally has spent a lifetime advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities. He has spent much of his academic career working to lift barriers around higher education, and has instilled social justice thinking and advocacy skills in students from all majors who enroll in his popular general education course “Disability in Society.”

And, since 2008, he has led the campus-wide effort to enhance the NIU undergraduate experience for all.

The baccalaureate review task force he chairs will determine what NIU as an institution wants its students to know, what it want them to be able to do and what kind of citizens it wants them to be.

Considering that NIU’s last baccalaureate review of this scope took place more than 25 years ago, Long and his committee are dedicated to the notion that every institution must periodically review what it believes and make sure its curriculum supports those beliefs.

“This experience has broadened my understanding of what it means to be at teacher,” Long says. “The ultimate goal … is to provide students with an education that allows them to go forward as citizens prepared to make a difference in the world.”

Long earned his bachelor’s degree at Carnegie-Mellon University and his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas.

His education literally began at birth, however. His brother, David, only 21 months older, is deaf and intellectually disabled.

“My parents organized our family life around helping David participate in the world. By volunteering with organizations that served individuals with disabilities, they could ensure that David had access,” Long says.

“This ‘service learning’ left an imprint and helped me understand issues of privilege and responsibility,” he adds. “Even as an adult, my experience as a sibling continues to influence my work.”

Long, who came to NIU in 1991 as director of research in the Research and Training Center on Traditionally Underserved Persons Who Are Deaf, employs the pulpit of his classroom and the Presidential Commission on Persons with Disabilities to open the minds of students.

His leadership of the commission successfully promoted American Sign Language as a path for students to fulfill foreign language requirements. He has pushed to make NIU more accessible for all by changing attitudes that remove obstacles.

As a teacher, he books guest speakers who tell compelling stories of their failures, hardships, achievements and happiness. He introduces “disability etiquette” and “person-first language” to help students grow more comfortable in their interactions with persons with disabilities.

Students also can earn extra credit through involvement in student organizations such as DeafPride or in creating connections with people with disabilities.

Lola Duran, who took “Disability in Society” course during the fall semester of her freshman year, found Long’s class transformational.

“I grew up in a small town with a hearing disability. I viewed my disability as something to hide because I felt ashamed,” she says. “My perception has changed. Dr. Long teaches his students that disability is not a stigma but a different way to live. Now I have embraced who I am.”

“Professor Long was one of those rare teachers who always seemed to leave me with more questions than answers, with an insatiable desire to know more and do more,” adds former student Lisa Gagliano. “Professor Long continuously challenged me to challenge myself, and in doing so, enabled me to develop deeper trust in my own abilities, courage to use my voice and a refreshing zest for advocacy and empowerment.”

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Media Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Media Relations & Internal Communications
Phone: 815-753-9472
Email: mmcgowan@niu.edu