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Trinity College Awards: Teaching Excellence Built Upon Risk-Taking

Trinity College honors faculty, staff for excellence in teaching, advising and leadership

teaching awards

Caption: The 2014 Trinity College and Alumni teaching award winners: Erdag Goknar, Rebecca Bach, Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, Lewis Blake and James Roberts. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

On an afternoon meant to celebrate teaching excellence at Duke, several of the honorees were open about how that road to excellence includes stumbles.

"It took me a few years to gain the confidence to be the teacher I wanted to be," said Rebecca Bach, winner of the Robert Cox Award, one of the Trinity College Distinguished Teaching Awards presented Monday at the Doris Duke Center.

"But I always loved teaching, and I got a lot back from the students.  They pushed me to take the risks I needed to take in my teaching to become better."

Support from Duke students also was on the mind of Erdag Goknar, associate professor of Turkish Studies who received the Richard Lublin Award.  At the ceremony, he recalled a similar lack of conviction in his first classrooms.

"As was said at the ceremony, trial and error can be a great way to learn new things," said Goknar, who just received tenure this year. "The Duke students were wonderful. They encouraged me to try things out until I had a solid repertoire."

In addition to the Trinity College teaching awards, the college also honored excellence in advising and leadership. The Duke Alumni Association also presented its annual Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award.

Here are the winners:

Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, Department of Statistical Science: David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award in the Natural Sciences

When Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel is the teacher, the entire world is a source of statistical study, even the nature of love and matchmaking.

Cetinkaya-Rundel organizes an annual DataFest competition involving statistical students from area colleges pulling insights out of a large, complex dataset and presenting them through creative data visualizations. In 2013, the competition had students look at eHarmony's algorithms and coming up with analysis of the numbers behind compatible matches and behavior.

Colleagues said this is the kind of creative instruction Cetinkaya-Rundel is known for, using technology and real-world issues to get students to use statistics to better understand the world.

"Mine uses technology fearlessly and effectively for student learning and engagement," said Andrea Novicki of the Center for Instructional Technology.

She has taught courses large and small, as well as an online statistics course for Coursera, but department chair Merlise Clyde said her greatest impact may have been in the introductory statistics course.  She teaches a "flipped" version of the course and has co-written an online open textbook for introductory statistics that makes course material available to her students at no cost.

"In my academic career, I have found the times when I am teaching and interacting with students to be the most rewarding," said Cetinkaya-Rundel. "Much of my own academic success has been driven by devoted professors. I hope my dedication to teaching and enthusiasm for statistics education will similarly motivate my students."


Rebecca Bach, Department of Sociology: Robert B. Cox Award in the Social Sciences

For sociology students, Rebecca Bach's classroom is just where the learning begins.

"Professor Bach shines in her dedication to mentorship and civic engagement," said Michael Habashi, a 2013 sociology major graduate who took Bach's "Sexuality and Society" course. "Her door is always open for students to stop by and discuss everything from selecting the sociology major to choosing classes to how to acquire research grants."

Department chair Eduardo Bonilla-Silva praised Bach for her work in course development, classroom instruction where she receives high praise from students and work in both large and small classes.  But Bonilla-Silva said where Bach stands out is her commitment to service learning and experiential learning.

For more than a decade, Bach has led a sociology internship course for students who wanted to gain experience with community organizations such as the Durham Crisis Response Center or Genesis Home or local businesses. She also restructured the Sexuality and Society course as a community-based research course.

"Her intent is always to provide the most fertile environment for student growth and to expand their 'sociological imagination' with exposure to fields not otherwise represented in the course offerings," Bonilla-Silva said.


James Roberts, Department of Economics: Howard D. Johnson Award

In less than five years on the Duke faculty, James Roberts has launched new courses, mentored numerous undergraduates through honors thesis, become a popular graduate level instructor and overseen eight dissertations and 11 more in process.

Economics chair Patrick Bayer shakes his head at the accomplishments. "Jimmy makes it look easy," Bayer said.

With Andrew Sweeting, Roberts co-developed a course on "How Markets Work" that applies economic theory to contemporary issues, such as whether the Department of Justice should intervene in proposed mergers, such as the recent one between US Airways and American Airlines.

Roberts said his commitment to teaching started young.  His parents encouraged him to go to Davidson where professor's main job was teaching.  But at Duke, he said he loves bringing his research into the classroom, into his advising and his university service.

That led him to encourage undergraduates to conduct independent research and to join the committee that selects the Faculty Scholars Awards, the top honor faculty members bestow upon undergraduate scholars.

"When I began working at Duke, I was determined to be a great teacher and researcher," Roberts said.  "In my opinion, Duke faculty members' research need not be a distraction from teaching. Instead, if professors leverage research correctly it can enable us to provide a superior undergraduate education."


Erdag Goknar, Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies: Richard Lublin Award in the Humanities

The first Turkish language and culture professor at Duke, Erdag Goknar's approach focuses on interdisciplinarity and on writing, said Jehenne Gheith, department chair.

His course on Turkish author Orhan Parmuk, for example, uses literature as a gateway to key issues in history, identity and culture.

Through his work with FOCUS and team-taught seminars and the Duke in Istanbul study abroad program, he finds ways to take learning outside of the classroom.

"Professor Goknar teaches us how to think rather than what to think," one student wrote in a class evaluation. "He continues this in outside discussions or in student questions."

His interest in teaching has led him to create several new courses including one on the art of translating literature, team-taught with classical studies professor Peter Burian. Goknar is a prominent translator of Turkish literature, including several Parmuk novels.

That interest also comes through his regular participation in the FOCUS program where he directs the "Middle East in Global Context" cluster. "I believe strongly that FOCUS represents students' initiation to the university and the seminar format and is vital to building and maintaining small programs and departments at Duke," Goknar said.


Denise Comer, Thompson Writing Program: Teaching With Technology Award

One year ago, there were many skeptics who doubted whether a writing course could be taught in an online MOOC format, and Denise Comer was initially among those skeptics.  But Comer is a risk-taker, and the idea of teaching writing to thousands of students appealed to her.

"When we were putting together the online course, Denise turned to me and said, 'This isn't going to work, is it," said Shawn Miller, director of Duke's Center for Instructional Technology. "And I said, 'Denise, imagine all the things we can learn if it doesn't work.' And I could see the spark in her eye."

The course went forward and for thousands of students, it provided an education not otherwise available to them. One was a quadriplegic from Britain who participated in the writing course using voice recognition software.

The MOOC course was an extension of the skills Comer developed in years of teaching writing in the Thompson Writing Program and mentoring other writing teachers at Duke and across the country. Comer said she approaches teaching "as a social, intellectual practice, shaped through deep engagement with others and sponsored by continual reflection and revision."

That approach has inspired the number of Duke faculty who have collaborated with Comer.

"I think of Denise as a nimble, confident, committed teacher," said Rebecca Vidra, a Nicholas School lecturer who worked with Comer on the MOOC. "She has taken advantage of the opportunities to use technology in service of her students, with the goal of promoting deeper engagement in the learning process. She has distinguished herself as a leader on campus in this way, and I feel fortunate to be her collaborator and friend."


The Spanish Language Program's Civic Engagement Initiative, Department of Romance Studies: The Dean's Leadership Award

Eileen Anderson; Joan Clifford; Rebecca Ewing; Bethzaida Fernandez; Lisa Merschel; Joan Munne; Liliana Paredes; Maria Romero; Melissa Simmermeyer; Rosa Solorzano; Graciela Vidal; William Villalba

One of the best ways to learn a language is to use it with people who regularly speak it, and a Spanish language instruction initiative to combine language learning with service is proving popular both with Duke students and community members.

Initiated last year by Trinity College Dean Laurie Patton, the Leadership Award recognizes innovative team teaching.

The Spanish language initiative began in 2003 with a Liliana Paredes-taught course on "Spanish Language for the Health Professions," which developed a service component in which health professions developed the language skills needed to communicate with the local Spanish-speaking populace.

From there the initiative expanded to include courses on education and immigration, global health, and "Latino/Latina Voices in Duke, Durham and Beyond." A future course will look at food consumption and production in Peru and North Carolina. 

All of these courses have had an experiential learning or service component. Students have praised the classroom learning experiences and faculty and community members say the initiative has helped build bridges between Duke and the local community.

"From the beginning, the Civic Engagement Initiative has extended relationships not only across departments and programs at Duke, but, in fact, across the Durham community at large," said Richard Rosa, chair of Romance Studies. "Some of the members of this group have gone on to develop further initiatives that were based in this first experience."


Lewis Blake, Department of Mathematics: Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award

Students in his classes say Blake put them first.

"His love for his students is evident," wrote one student in nominating Blake. "He once regraded a quiz because  '[he] couldn't sleep [that] night thinking [he] hadn't taught us something.'"

Students also noted his close attention to their struggles and interests in the material to the point of knowing all of the students' majors.

The eighth Duke alumnus to receive Duke Alumni Association's teaching award, Blake served as supervisor of first-year instruction (SFI) in the Department of Mathematics for 26 years, and as such, was one of the most important teachers that new math students met. Blake stepped down from the position of SFI in May, 2011, and returned to full-time teaching.

Department chair Harold Layton said the first-year program "was run [by Blake] so smoothly that it was all but invisible to me."

"It is impossible to exaggerate" the contributions Blake has made, and continues to make, both to the Math faculty and to the students, Layton added. "I consider Lewis to be an exemplar of the dedication and steadfastness for which we at Duke should strive," Layton said.


James Berkey

James Berkey, Thompson Writing Program: Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing

Teaching writing is daunting, says the director of the Thompson Writing Program, requiring teaching that challenges students to research methods and a new way of expressing themselves. James Berkey is exemplary in doing it all.

A lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program, Berkey teaches a course on 'Writing War' that has students do archival work like an historian and use that material in their writing and multi-media compositions.

"Students praised his valuable feedback, the thrill of doing primary research in the Rubenstein library, the class discussions that brought every viewpoint to light, and above all, Jim's systematic guidance through the stages of academic writing, transferable to other classes at Duke," said Kristen Neuschel, director of the writing program. "Said one student, 'I would not have figured out such an effective manner of carrying out academic writing on my own.'"


Award for Excellence in Advising: Kelly Cottrell, Professional Development Institute

As a professional development specialist at Duke's Professional Development Institute, Kelly Cottrell stresses the importance of advising and mentoring in helping people along their academic and career pathways.

In advising undergraduate students, Cottrell follows what she preaches.

"Kelly is really a mentor rather than an adviser," said one student in nominating Cottrell for the award. "That is fortunate, because a mentor is really what a student needs during your first year here."

The award is a recent addition to the Trinity College awards, meant to underscore the importance of advising in undergraduate education.