Tips from Top Teachers

Philosophy professor Andrew Janiak teaches a class on East Campus

Good teachers say there are no secrets to teaching, but advice does help. Tuesday night, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences announced its annual teaching awards given on the basis of recommendations from students and faculty colleagues.

The four winners come from a variety of fields and experience. The David and Janet Vaughan Brooks Award, the Robert B. Cox Award, the Howard D. Johnson Award, and the Richard K. Lublin Award recognize faculty who encourage intellectual inquiry in the classroom and introduce students to the most exciting concepts in their field.


Below are this year's winners and a few comments from each about what they attempt to do in teaching:




David and Janet Vaughan Brooks Award


Leslie Digby, assistant professor of the practice of evolutionary anthropology, studies the evolution of primate and human social behavior.



Leslie Digby, center, with students. Photo: Jared Lazarus

Be accessible


"One of the key things I try to do is keep my door open. I let the students know that I'm there to help them -- whether they want to go over a concept or they need help with organizing a paper. Having an open door policy has also led to all sorts of great conversations with students who were just passing by. -- ."

Involve students in teaching

"I also try to create an environment where the students can teach me something. This can be as simple as creating a conversational environment in the classroom where students are invited to share information they've learned from other courses or life experiences to having informal presentations (where the student takes the role of the expert) that take place outside of class. The presentations end up being great platforms from which to start in-depth conversations about course-related topics."




Robert B. Cox Award

Diane Nelson, associate professor of cultural anthropology, is a specialist on gender and identity issues and indigenous communities in Central America.


Diane Nelson with student James Han. Photo: Megan Morr

Trust each other

"This means trusting the students to take responsibility to periodically lead class, to review each other's work, to still respect you if you're not perfect. Lateral learning, in which students teach each other (and you), is fun, relieves the teacher of some heavy burdens, can move class texts and issues into unexpected realms, and helps students trust themselves and each other. --

"This means giving them cause to trust you, making expectations and scheduling really clear from the beginning and creating frequent assignments so you can keep track of how they are doing and so they get feedback from you. The longer I teach the more time I put into creating the syllabus, trying to forestall any surprises that may make already time-stretched students feel totally overwhelmed.

"This means trusting yourself with them. Sometimes doing enormous amounts of preparation and knowing beforehand how to fill every moment of class time is necessary to get through complex topics, but sometimes it's because I don't trust the class as an ‘us.'"

Knowledge is partial

"‘Partial' as invested, inclined toward: we all have different identity positions, political investments, and unexamined assumptions. I try to be as reflexive as possible (and up front) about my own and to both respect and challenge students.

"‘Partial' as incomplete: no one knows everything but all of us know some things, and there are many different languages or ‘ways in' to ideas or understandings, including through the body. -- For Hegel's theory of the master-slave dialectic, I mix the text and lecture on it with Cheap Trick's ‘I Want You to Want Me,' stories told about cannibals told throughout Latin America's colonization, Shakespeare's The Tempest and its sci-fi version ‘Forbidden Planet' (‘My evil self is at the door!'), as well as play-acting an Aztec ritual. Teaching can be rigorous and challenging as well as fun."



Richard K. Lublin Award

Andrew Janiak, assistant professor of philosophy, studies the history of science and early modern philosophy.

What is the class missing?

"Recognize that learning and teaching are both dynamic -- rather than static -- activities by frequently checking with students to see if they understand the material. For instance, I stop myself every five minutes or so to see if there are questions; I also stop to look at every face in the room, scanning for puzzlement or incomprehension."


"Employ humor to lighten the mood, particularly during stressful times, such as early morning classes, an exam period, or days when students have just received their grades. In particular, I always try to use humor to indicate that I recognize the difficulties of being a student, and that I am not overly serious about the work. I am serious, but not overly so. This helps to reduce their stress, and there is nothing that prevents students from learning more than nervousness or stress."




Howard D. Johnson Award

Peter English is professor of pediatrics and history and is an expert on the history of epidemic diseases and public health.


Peter English eaches a class on the obesity epidemic. Photo: Jared Lazarus

It's work

"Teaching awards are a curse, because now all sorts of folks think I have some kind of elixir. Teaching for me is hard work. It requires diligent research, carefully considered goals, thoughtful class plans, reasonable assignments and tests and enthusiasm about being in front of a class."




Dean's Distinguished Service Award


Suzanne Shanahan is associate research professor of sociology and associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics.



Suzanne Shanahan, a fifth teacher, was also honored Tuesday with the Dean's Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes a member of the Arts & Sciences faculty who has demonstrated exceptional service to the department, Trinity College or the university. The current chair of the Arts and Sciences Council, Shanahan has also assisted the Kenan Institute, DukeEngage in Ireland and other university programs. She won the Cox Teaching Award in 2005.

"Suzanne remains a beloved teacher and mentor to both graduate and undergraduate students and has worked tirelessly for the benefit of all students," said Lee Baker, Trinity dean of academic affairs.


"She cares deeply about this institution and understands that service to the college and university is a commitment of making Duke the very best institution it can be."