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Each year up to three faculty are recognized with an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award. View the past Outstanding Faculty Mentors recipients. To nominate an ASU tenure/tenure track faculty, please visit Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards page for more information.
Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Associate Professor, Philosophy, School of Humanities, Arts and cultural Studies, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (2017).
The "Captain" that Almost Wasn't: How My Teaching Idealism was Challenged and Renewed by ASU
I still watch Dead Poets Society whenever it comes on TV, and it remains one of my favorite films (“Oh captain, my captain”!). While it inspired me to teach, it also set me up for “failure”; one from which ASU saved me, when I realized that my purpose as a teacher has a different kind of transformational value.
I thought that I would be teaching students like the ones in the film – students who savored every word of poetry (or in my case philosophy) because they loved it as much as I do; students who would swoon over Plato and be unable to put Descartes down. We would sit in a circle all the time and marvel at the ideas and theories written by the greatest minds. But soon I realized that if I wanted to get students to love philosophy as much as I do, I would have to battle against a plethora of difficult background situations that didn’t exist for the boys in the film.
Many of my students come from backgrounds of financial strife. Like me, many are first generation college students and are trying to balance the demands of college with the demands of their personal life. They are often caregivers of young children or ailing parents. They work multiple jobs. College is but one of the many things they are balancing. Yet for many, that degree is their golden ticket. That degree is going to make the difference between continuing a life of financial strife, or having doors open for them that they never knew were possible. I had to teach them to love philosophy by showing them how it can open those doors for them. I wanted them to see how Plato can help them get jobs, how reading Descartes can positively contribute to being a responsible member of a political democracy. How questioning their religious beliefs can draw them closer to their God. How studying ethical theories can help them be better partners, parents, friends, caregivers, and help them make morally good decisions in their lives and in their workplace. I had to show them how honing their critical thinking and writing skills was both intrinsically and prudentially valuable – that the person who can critically and creatively think had the upper hand when employers are combing through dozens of applications. In other words, I had to make philosophy relevant in their lives. And in doing all this, I realized that I had a different role to play than did John Keating (Robin William’s character in the film). He may have taught those boys to love poetry, but I potentially had the power to change students’ generational tree. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously, and it is one I never would have realized were it not for ASU’s commitment to educating anyone who truly wants it. It’s also my way of paying it forward, for had it not been for the commitments of my undergraduate teachers, there is no way I would have survived college, let alone graduate school.
This is my overall teaching philosophy, and it affects not just my undergraduate teaching, but my graduate teaching too. For many of my students, the idea of graduating with a bachelor’s degree is difficult enough, but graduate school? Graduate school is for the extra-smart people, they say – it’s not for them. I soon realized that one of the greatest obstacles facing my students when it came to attending graduate school was their belief that they were simply not capable enough to do it. So, I combatted this the only way I knew how – by displaying to them my own vulnerability and academic flaws. For every student who has told me that they were not “smart enough” for graduate school, I have sat them down in my office and showed them my undergraduate transcripts – one that is peppered with As and Bs, but also Cs and Ds. One that showed a kid who was good at philosophy, but really not much else; one that showed a graduating GPA of 3.4 – barely above a B+. I was ordinary. No one who would have looked at me would have thought I was cut out for academia. The first step to getting students into graduate school is infusing them with the confidence that they belong there, and doing so sometimes entails showing them that their professors struggled as well.
Students who are in graduate school are my peers – I treat them like intellectual equals whom I am guiding and mentoring, not just teaching. If graduating with an undergraduate degree changed their generational tree, graduate school takes that future to a whole other level. At this point, my job is to teach them to be successful members of my profession; I am doing it for them primarily, but also because the future of academia depends on the young minds who have embraced it and want to infuse it with their own imprint.
I am hesitant to give concrete examples because I don’t feel comfortable taking credit for students’ work; these are their successes, not mine. Nevertheless, there are two stories I will share.
One is the impressive Sasha Billbe, who currently works as the Program Manager for Student Engagement at Barrett the Honors College at West. Sasha has a Master’s in Education from Northern Arizona University, and is currently working hard on her Doctorate of Education from ASU. I have known Sasha since she was a sophomore at ASU. I met her as a RA for the Barrett Summer Scholars program, and she became a philosophy major shortly thereafter. After taking many classes from me, I was honored to mentor her through the NCUIRE program, where her research on Aristotle’s views on art as a moral educator greatly influenced my own research, and lead to a publication for me. I then chaired her thesis for Barrett the Honors College on Aristotle and media ethics, and how philosophy can influence our moral assessment of adolescent literature. Sasha and I remain close. She has taken two independent studies courses with me as a graduate student because we are both committed to finding ways to learn from each other even now. She is nothing short of an amazing asset to the ASU community, and her ability to successfully work full time in an extremely demanding job and complete these difficult graduate programs continues to astound me. I can’t imagine being any prouder of my own daughters when they graduate and take the world by storm, as Sasha does every single day.
Second is the wonderful Joshua Dawson, who is currently finishing his Masters of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount and has his eyes on prestigious Ph.D. programs in philosophy. Josh is a born philosopher, and I saw that in the very first class he took from me (and the four classes he took with me thereafter). He would read difficult philosophical texts for class that were outside what was required, and we would spend hours in my office combing through them, debating them, or just trying to understand them. We would groan in unison when the language was almost un-readable, and then cheer together and high-five each other when we finally got it. Three summers ago, Joshua was accepted into a very prestigious summer program at the University of Notre Dame, where he was able to conduct research with some of the most influential contemporary philosophers, and where he was the only humanities student. I am proud to say that the paper he used to get into the program was written for one of my classes, and in addition I helped him write and revise his personal statement many times. As someone who wanted to go to Notre Dame myself for graduate school, and never did, Josh’s victory enabled me to live vicariously through his success. After he returned, it was clear to me he was now a peer, and I spoke and interacted with him how I would any colleague. When Josh started taking symbolic logic, he would bring his book to class and, after everyone had left, we’d spend the evening going over proofs together on the board. He was so overwhelmed – taking five classes, working full time, and trying to study for the GRE and apply to graduate school. We sat in my office on multiple occasions looking through many universities’ philosophy programs, trying to find the best fit. And when he finally decided on Loyola, we spent a couple of hours online looking for apartments for him in the expensive Los Angeles area. Joshua still writes me constantly, and I send him conference calls for papers all the time. My hope is to one day attend a conference with him. If there was ever a student who made me feel just like I imagine John Keating did with his poetry students, it is Josh. Josh made my love for philosophy come alive again in a way that was reminiscent of when I was an undergraduate discovering it for the first time.
When I have difficult days in life, the classroom makes those problems vanish. When I wonder whether I have done anything positive in my career, I think of these students. But I think of all students, really. Whether they become professional philosophers or not, I hope that they each find the accomplishments they needed to find. And I hope that, somehow, I was a small part of their overall network of success.
Nancy Serwint, Associate Professor, Art, School of Art, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (2017).
I began my teaching career in 1987 in the School of Art at Arizona State University, and it is sobering to realize that 30 years have passed since I first entered a classroom as a timid lecturer just out of graduate school. The utter gratefulness of having a teaching position and the nervous anxiety of stepping into the classroom with an assigned 4/4 teaching load did not allow then for an initial introspection of how to be an effective educator. That reflection developed over time by assessing what worked and what didn’t, what captured student interest and what stunted inquiry, what brought enthusiasm into a 7:30 am lecture on Egyptian tomb sculpture and what produced lethargy and dullness. Trial and error, to be sure, but what was a constant was my resolute certainty that I was one of the fortunate ones – I had been gifted with an imagination, a yearning to explore, and a desire to know more. As I think back, I am also quite sure that excellence was never expected of me. I came from the west side of Chicago, born into a family that valued hard work and honesty but not necessarily intellectual achievement. The desire to transport myself into a world of ideas that was grounded in antiquity was all the doing of a magnificent high school Latin teacher who showed me that intelligence was a precious gift and the desire to excel a valuable aspiration. My own academic trajectory was rooted first in ancient languages, then the art of Greece and Rome, and ultimately the discipline of classical archaeology. The route took me to the heady stimulation of the University of Chicago and Princeton. I never forgot from where I came, and I remember quite distinctly that I had one day vowed that if ever I were fortunate enough to teach that I would make the world open up for my students as my high school teacher had done for me. Achievement was possible and having the support of someone who believed in me had made all the difference.
I know for a surety that my teaching philosophy is based on an enthusiasm for what I study that has not dimmed over the course of a long career. Knowledge should bring pleasure, and my students expect that understanding the details of how an Attic black figure vase was crafted leaves them wanting more. Learning is infectious; facts are fun; and asking questions is one of the most important things an engaged student can accomplish. This is especially true for graduate students. Advanced study is grueling; the finish line for completion is a retreating goal; and an initial passion can be stunted by the boring ache of minutiae. Engagement with students is critical at many phases but nothing is more significant than reminding students that the solitariness of research brings results, that knowing how to think is perhaps more important than knowing facts, and that hard work always is an ingredient for success. Expectations of quality work from my students is born from my desire to see them advance, and they know that mastery of the discipline makes them academically competitive and will ultimately open doors.
My own work as a field archaeologist and the opportunities that I have had for research and study outside of the classroom have allowed me to offer experiences to my graduate students that go beyond the university environment. As co-director of the Princeton University Cyprus Expedition, every summer now for three decades, students have accompanied me and have served as staff on the excavation. The site of ancient Marion was one of the city kingdoms of Cyprus in antiquity, and graduate students have been involved in the excavation of the site and the research analysis of the over 30,000 fragments of votive sculpture that have been recovered from the city’s ancient sanctuaries. Aspects of the material culture have fueled dissertation and thesis projects, and the procedures for analysis of clay and worked stone learned at our site have advanced the research protocols for several doctoral students. During the 1990s, I was the director of a foreign archaeological research institute in Cyprus (the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute), and since then several of my graduate students have received research stipends and fellowship awards from the institute to advance their dissertation research. My previous study and association as a fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens has led to students participating in the rigorous archaeology program and advancing their own graduate research as associate members of the School. Longstanding work on the coroplastic arts of ancient Cyprus has allowed me to collaborate and interact with international scholars at professional and academic colloquia and symposia. I am proud that several of my doctoral students, who have studied with me, have been selected to offer academic papers at some of the most prestigious venues in the field of classical and Near Eastern archaeology that have included the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the University of Haifa.
As I look back over a long career that has been quite extraordinary, what heartens me the most have been the accomplishments of my students. As a young girl, I had yearned to advance beyond what was average, and mediocrity was never a goal I envisioned for anyone who stepped into my classroom. Exploring a world removed in time and place was what I had committed myself to many years back, and the pleasure of academic inquiry and professional excellence was the inheritance I wanted my students to embrace. I often tell my students that while facing the most sober realities, they should always follow what makes their heart sing. If their choice is the ancient world, then I am prepared to help them orchestrate a symphony. The most precious moment I have experienced as a graduate mentor occurred just two years ago. One of my doctoral students was delivering a paper on a very complicated subject at a conference on Near Eastern archaeology. The audience was filled with some of the most distinguished scholars in the field, and at the conclusion of her presentation, the audience burst into applause. I wept.
Amber Wutich, Professor and Director, Center for Global Health, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (2017).
In an increasingly globalized world, anthropologists can play an important role in collaborative efforts to solve global problems. Yet most graduate students in cultural anthropology are still trained in the “lone wolf” model of solitary field research and publication. My goal is to teach graduate students from anthropology and allied fields to do rigorous, collaborative research that can promote sustainability, social justice, and global health. This involves: (1) bringing theories from anthropology and allied fields to bear on real-world problems; (2) providing students with rigorous research skills that are in demand and professionally marketable; and (3) recruiting and mentoring graduate students from underrepresented groups, as these students are often especially well-positioned to advance novel scholarly understandings of injustice and inequality.
Graduate teaching excellence
I teach research methods for graduate students nationally, through the NSF methods institutes in cultural anthropology and other initiatives. These experiences taught me that good research training is an essential foundation for graduate student success. In SHESC, I teach the required graduate course in Ethnographic Field Methods. Since I took over teaching this course, ASU’s success rates in NSF Cultural Anthropology DDIG grant awards rose to 42% (in 2016), compared to a national funding rate of 16% (NSF 2016).
I also teach and mentor graduate students in research methods across all ASU’s graduate programs in the social sciences. Since 2012, at ASU’s Institute for Social Science Research, I have taught 17 intensive workshops in research methods to about 350 ASU graduate students and early-career scholars. The quality of my teaching has been recognized by awards such as Carnegie CASE Arizona Professor of the Year (2013) and ASU’s Award for Excellence in Classroom Performance (2011).
Commitment to graduate student success
I have created a number of hands-on research programs, with colleagues, to mentor graduate students from ASU’s programs in Global Health, Environmental Social Sciences, and Cultural Anthropology. We use our research—on unjust environmental institutions and global health disparities—as a platform for collaboration. Working together with faculty, graduate students develop skills in research, publication, teaching, and mentorship.
We use four collaborative models to enhance education in the classroom and beyond. Collectively, these programs have created 46 research mentorship experiences for graduate students, and 48 opportunities for graduate students to co-author peer-reviewed publications. Here are examples:
I direct the Culture, Health, and Environment Lab (2010-2017), where faculty and graduate students work on NSF-funded research and develop skills in data collection and analysis.
Collaborative International Research
I designed the Global Ethnohydrology Study (2007-2017), a multi-year, cross-cultural study that examines water management and knowledge in 10 countries.
Locally-engaged Citizen Science & Education
I designed the Science of Water Art (2010-2013), a citizen science study that helps graduate students hone their skills in community partnerships and curriculum design.
Locally-embedded Community-based Research
In the South Phoenix Collaborative (2008-2011), my colleagues and I designed a participatory community-based study of health risks in a Latino immigrant community.
Record of mentoring and student professional development
One of the greatest joys of being a university professor is working with graduate students within a supportive collaborative research group. I manage a large, dynamic and diverse lab research group in SHESC, currently with 2 postdocs, 6 graduate students, and 15 undergraduate students. The graduate students help mentor the undergraduates, although I am very involved with everyone.
To be successful, graduate students need to develop independent research proposals and scholarly agendas. Learning grant-writing requires intensive mentoring. Of the ABD Ph.D. students I have supervised, all received national grant funding (NSF, Fulbright, SSRC). Time to degree is another important marker of intensive mentorship. My Ph.D. students have graduated, on average, 3 years earlier than the national average for Ph.D. students in Anthropology (NSF 2006).
Final markers of graduate student success are publication and employment. In the “lone wolf” model, graduate students never co-author publications with their mentors. My now-graduated Ph.D. students published, on average, 8 peer-reviewed publications, many co-authored with me. Finally, all the Ph.D. recipients whose committees I chaired are employed full-time in academia in teaching or postdoctoral research positions.
Commitment to diversity
As a professor, I hope to address the inequities I study by increasing access for underrepresented students to excellent graduate education. In my current cohort of Ph.D. students, the majority are students of color and women. Although numbers matter, I believe quality is more important than quantity in graduate education. Female and minority students often endure harmful discriminatory experiences in graduate school. My mentorship approach is the result of serious self-education and self-reflection about structural inequality in the academy. In addition, I have built strong informal networks at ASU with African-American, American Indian, Latino, and women scholars. Working together, we leverage our respective skills and expertise to support underrepresented graduate students as they realize their scholarly potential at ASU.