by Joe King
To the average person, classes designed to prepare for a career as a school librarian or as an information technology professional might not sound exciting. Students of Rebecca Butler and Chuck Downing would reply that those people just haven’t found the right teacher.
For their skill in getting individuals excited about those fields, and providing them with the tools to excel, Butler and Downing have been selected to receive this year’s Presidential Teaching Professorships.
Both have a passion for topics that the uninitiated sometimes dismiss as mundane. Both have a knack for helping students see beyond the stereotypes to discover the challenges and satisfaction that their chosen fields can hold. And both have a long list of former students willing to attest that they never would have followed their chosen career path – with no regrets – had these particular teachers not crossed their paths.
“At its heart, teaching is about more than simply imparting knowledge. It is about changing lives. This year’s recipients of the Presidential Teaching Professorships have proven they are adept at doing so,” Provost Ray Alden says. “They typify the excellence found throughout our teaching ranks, and will serve as a tremendous example for all those who aspire to excellence in the classroom.”
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 of these eminent faculty members is designated a Distinguished Teaching Professor.
Here is a closer look at this year’s winners.
When Rebecca Butler started her career as a school librarian, the pinnacle of technological competence was the ability to thread 16mm film through a projector.
For the new generation of librarians Butler trains, such knowledge is relegated to the history books tucked away in libraries filled not only with books but also DVDs, CD-ROMs and computers that provide access to the riches of the Internet. Today she is the master of all those tools (and more) and revels in the “a-ha!” moments when she helps a student harness each to enrich learning.
Of course, teaching technology is just the start for Butler, the sole faculty member in the NIU College of Education who specializes in library science. She also teaches students how to be administrators, manage budgets, write grants and how to evaluate and select materials. And then there is copyright law – an area in which Butler has built a national reputation, authoring two books on the topic.
Covering such a broad spectrum of topics is challenging, but her students make it worthwhile, says Butler, who joined the faculty of the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment 12 years ago.
“My students motivate me,” she says. “The biggest joy for me is when students stop to tell me that they really learned a lot. I love it when that ‘light bulb’ goes on.”
Those moments happen all of the time, her students say.
“I remember always leaving her classes feeling intellectually stimulated; it made my three-hour commute to DeKalb worthwhile,” says former student Judith Condren, who is now a library media specialist at East Leyden High School.
One of Butler’s gifts, students say, is her ability to keep material varied, relevant and interesting. For instance, she once designed a class around Harry Potter books, using them as a jumping-off point for discussions on everything from selecting materials to helping students find additional information online and from discovering how to supplement class curriculum through using leisure reading materials to dealing with would-be book banners.
“At times the classroom functioned as a literary society discussing young adult reading selections and at other times it was a group of professionals sharing project presentations or attending a seminar,” former student Kelly Fojtik says. “We gained an understanding, through Dr. Butler’s enthusiastic advocacy, that libraries are the unique, vibrant center of learning for the school and also the vital pulse of a free society.”
Butler’s teaching load encompasses teaching master’s students in Library Information Specialist courses and doctoral seminars. She is also a popular choice to guide Ph.D. candidates, as is evidenced by the 12 doctoral dissertations she currently chairs. She manages all that while still maintaining a steady stream of research and publishing and being active on numerous university and department committees.
Her excellence in all of those areas, says her colleague Janet Holt, make Butler an outstanding choice for the Presidential Teaching Professorship.
“Dr. Butler is an innovative and engaging professor who is passionately dedicated to teaching well,” Holt says. “Her students get an interesting and engaging class based on the most current information and research, an adviser who is thoroughly knowledgeable about university procedures and policies and about their career path, and a person on the other side of the desk with a smile on her face and an infectious laugh.”
Chuck Downing is the first to admit that he is competitive by nature.
It doesn’t matter if he’s playing a round of golf, coaching a Little League baseball team or pursuing that electric buzz that goes through a lecture hall when students grasp a difficult concept – he likes to win.
“Students don’t fake it with you,” says Downing, who joined the faculty of the Department of Operations Management and Information Systems in the NIU College of Business 10 years ago. “I teach sections of up to 350 students and I can feel it in the room when something resonates with them. It’s motivating to me when I see that happen.”
In a field like information systems, which can change on an almost daily basis, getting that kind of reaction is not easy. Conversations can quickly devolve into “acronym soup” and concepts can get buried beneath an avalanche of tech terms.
Downing embraces the challenge, however, striving to effectively integrate the academic and business communities.
He prides himself on his ability to keep information simple and accessible while effectively extracting the most practical and useful lessons from both his own and the field’s research. His success in doing so has earned him numerous teaching awards, from both students and faculty in the department.
Chasing that “buzz” in the classroom fuels his passion for the field. It is what drives him to stay current not only in his field of study, but also on the cutting edge of teaching techniques. While always racing to stay ahead of the curve, Downing also strives to make certain that no student ever suffers from those efforts.
“Dr. Downing is unwavering in his desire for his students to obtain the true value from his lectures and assignments,” says OMIS alum Andrew Johnson. “He ensured his students were never left behind, and he was always willing to provide additional guidance to those who sought his assistance.”
His enthusiastic, accessible teaching methods mean that he teaches mostly large lecture classes.
However, Downing also excels at working with small groups in the College of Business’ Experiential Learning Center (ELC), having coached teams through seven semester-long consulting-style projects.
In 2007, Wal-Mart Corp. named Downing the Wal-Mart Professor in Enterprise Technology Innovation and asked him to guide five consecutive ELC teams in solving actual business problems for the retail giant. The company thought so highly of the work done by his teams that it not only implemented some of their ideas, it hired several of the students to come work at its Arkansas headquarters.
In addition to his teaching, Downing also has served enthusiastically on numerous departmental committees, and even “co-stars” in the departmental promotional video. That level of commitment, as well as his stellar reputation among students, has earned him the respect of his peers.
“I can honestly say that Dr. Downing is the most outstanding teacher I have witnessed in my 25 years of teaching,” says his colleague Kathleen McFadden. “He serves as the main role model and benchmark for comparison for other professors in our college who strive for continuous teaching excellence.”