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Trinity Honors Excellence in Teaching, Advising and Service

trinity college awards

Trinity College Award Winners: Clockwise from top left: Eric Spana, Alex Harris, Susan Thorne, Michael Hardt, Kenneth Lyle, Steve Baldwin, Connel Fullenkamp and Ed Balleisen. Not pictured: Jennifer Ansley and Deborah Johnson.

Teaching a new generation of students is an essential part of why faculty members choose their careers. And many learn to teach very well.

On the last day of classes Wednesday, more than 50 faculty and administrators in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences gathered at the Doris Duke Center to present Trinity College’s annual teaching awards.

The faculty award-winners include some of the university's most distinguished researchers. Some have made their mark teaching large introductory classes; others have been innovative in introducing technology in the classroom or developing new approaches to small classes and labs.

In addition to recognizing great teaching, Trinity 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:

Eric Spana, Department of Biology: David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award in the Natural Sciences

For Duke biologist Eric Spana, teaching an eight-hour a week molecular genetics lab is easy.  What's hard is explaining to thousands of video game fans that the giant lizard women in a popular game cannot realistically have breasts because, well, they're reptiles.

Spana's enthusiasm for biology can be found both in the classroom and in his role as a public ambassador for biology. He has given popular public talks on bad science in video games and the genetics of wizards in the Harry Potter books.

Spana does both well because he knows "how to get people to understand biology," said faculty colleague Mohammed Noor. "Eric's course readily achieves what many of our courses struggle to achieve -- getting students really excited about hands-on work in biology," Noor said.

His primary in-class role has been to teach the intense biology lab course “Experiments in Developmental and Molecular Genetics.” Technological advances allow Spana’s lab students to conduct genetic manipulations that would have been unheard of in undergraduate courses a few years ago. The students love it, and some have even produced publications resulting from their lab work. For instance, one group mapped a gene mutation that causes a severe immunodeficiency disease in humans.

"Eric's course readily achieves what many of our courses struggle to achieve -- getting students really excited about hands-on work in biology," Noor said.


Alex Harris, Center for Documentary Studies: Robert B. Cox Award in the Social Sciences

Through his documentary photography, Alex Harris has opened the world to many viewers and influenced a growing field. However, his lasting influence is also felt through the work of his students.

One example is Eric Gottesman, class of 1997. CDS recently celebrated the publication of Gottesman's new book on the children of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"Gottesman chose to celebrate the book’s premiere in Durham because of the long-lasting influence Alex has had on this project from its beginning to his close mentorship of Gottesman after college," said Wesley Hogan CDS director. "Gottesman credits his ability to sustain a career as a successful working photographer today -- no small feat in itself -- to Alex’s inspiration.

"Alex’s generosity with students -- his constant willingness to share his time, focus, and creative vision both in and outside the classroom – shapes their thinking about the power of photography to change society," Hogan added. "Even more impressively, it often alters their own ways of being in the world for many years afterward."

Another sign of Harris' connection to students: Hogan says CDS now has students whose parents were taught by Harris in 1970s and '80s who urged their children to take a class with him.


Susan Thorne, Department of History: Howard D. Johnson Award

Historian Susan Thorne admits she wasn't a good teacher when she began her career. She wasn't comfortable before audiences and disliked being the focus of attention in class.

"Powerpoint helped!" she laughed, adding that she uses technology to divert students’ focus from her to the course content. But students and colleagues also say Thorne’s enthusiasm for that content – European imperialism and the British Empire – connects past to present in a way that is history instruction at its best.

"She doesn't so much offer an overview of the historical period as she invites students to learn to interpret it on their own," said history chair John Jeffries Martin. "She helps them do so by providing them with multiple interpretations of the past, making it clear that our interpretation of history is always evolving. She also places considerable emphasis on writing."

In her course "Crime and the City," Thorne connects the London of Charles Dickens to the contemporary Baltimore of "The Wire" to explore how perceptions of crime don't always reflect actual criminal activity and how a culture can "criminalize poverty." Another course explores how empire transformed modern British culture and politics with a particular eye to how that past history is still happening. 

"For Susan, teaching is neither a distraction from nor secondary to research," said Adriane Lentz-Smith, director of undergraduate studies in history. "It is central to her educational and intellectual mission."


Michael Hardt, Program in Literature: Richard K. Lublin Award in the Humanities

Michael Hardt provides further evidence  that Duke’s academic superstars can also be great teachers.  His scholarship on critical theory has been translated into 25 languages. He also has taken the lead to help literature, which until recently focused on graduate education, develop a vigorous undergraduate major program called Global Cultural Studies.

His course "Marxism and Society," which Hardt has taught for two decades, was this year designated a university Signature Course. One student said the course "required the best type of drawn-out thinking and critical readings and re-readings of text. 

Program chair Rey Chow noted that Hardt is so dedicated to teaching that he is teaching a full course schedule this year despite the fact that his editorship of South Atlantic Quarterly allows him to take a reduced load.

Longtime colleague Fred Jameson said that when visiting Hardt's classroom, he has seen how Hardt "has a genuine interest in other points of view, and in particular in objections, counter-theories and alternatives."

"You can see that he listens to these positions and takes them seriously," Jameson said. "There is respect for his interlocutors, which is surely intimately related to his deeper democratic convictions, but which is not just a teaching style; it is a passionate curiosity about how people think and about what a multiplicity of points of view entails."


Ed Balleisen, Department of History: Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award

Ed Balleisen is the kind of teacher who convinces students that learning "isn't about the grade."

"He showed me it's about the incredible discoveries that can be made when we leverage the resources of a Duke education and our personal potential, which he illuminates for us," said one student who nominated Balleisen for the award. "He shows students that great historical discoveries are not just for aged Ph.D.s in the shadows of Oxford libraries, they are opportunities for undergraduates who are passionate about history."

Balleisen has made his mark in interdisciplinary classes, sometimes co-taught with faculty from other schools. But students noted that he crosses disciplinary lines with ease. "By working with him, I know that I am well-equipped to move beyond college and positively contribute to policy innovation in the future," said one student.

He directs the "Rethinking Regulation" project of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and co-leads a Bass Connections program on regulatory governance.

Sponsored by the Alumni Association, the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award is the only Trinity College award that is selected solely by students.

The teaching award isn't the first for Balleisen, who will become the new vice provost for interdisciplinary studies this summer.  In 2005, he received the Howard D. Johnson Teaching Award, and earlier this semester he won the Graduate School Dean's Mentoring Award.


Connel Fullenkamp, Department of Economics: Teaching With Technology Award

It's not enough to introduce technology into the classroom; Connel Fullenkamp experiments to get it right.

Since 2012, Fullenkamp has refined the idea of a "flipped classroom" – in which students watch lecture videos prior to coming to class, where they apply theories to real-world issues. But he also wanted to quantify what was working about the new approach.

This year, he is teaching two versions of his introductory “Economic Principles” course. One is taught in traditional style, the other as a "flipped" classroom.  The experiment will be repeated next year, and the results will tell the department a lot about what the traditional approach and the flipped classroom can do best.

"Clearly, Connel continues to be an innovator in the classroom," said economics Professor Lori Leachman. "He is constantly exploring new modes of delivery for traditional content and incorporating those that facilitate his methods of teaching."


Jennifer Ansley, Thompson Writing Program: Excellence in Teaching Writing

First-year students come to Duke already thinking they know how to write, but Jennifer Ansley has an exceptional record of teaching them that academic writing requires something more.

An instructor in the Thompson Writing Program (TWP), Ansley is a specialist in gender and sexuality studies. All first-year students take Writing 101 in TWP as an introduction to writing that presents an argument and supports it.

"Her writing course is in a new field with challenging theoretical underpinnings," said Professor Kristen Neuschel, director of the writing program. "In her hands, students grapple with core questions with confidence.  They produce high-level work that is creative and ambitious."