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Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
Aptil 27, 2007
DeKalb, Ill. — There are many ways to define a great teacher.
Some say great teachers are those who take a very personal interest in their students. Some say it is innovation in the classroom that makes great teachers stand out. Still others define great teachers are those who inspire students to great scholarship.
It is difficult to disagree with any of those definitions. However, few would quibble that teachers who display all of those traits are truly at the top of their field, and that is the case with all three of this year’s Presidential Teaching Professors.
Selected for that honor this year are Tomis Kapitan, from the Department of Philosophy; Lee Shumow, from the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations; and James Young, from the Department of Accountancy.
All three are held in the highest regard by colleagues, are known for giving generously of their time and talents with students, both in and out of class, and are known not just as master teachers, but also as innovators and experts in their fields.
“As the strategic planning group works to set our course for the future, we have talked at length about the value of maintaining our excellence in undergraduate education,” says Provost Raymond Alden. “This year’s winners of the Presidential Teaching Professorships exemplify the type of excellence we have in mind. All three are skilled academicians who have demonstrated an extraordinary dedication to students. They represent examples for us all.”
Begun in 1990, Presidential Teaching Professorships recognize outstanding teachers among the faculty. Each receives a $2,000 boost in base salary as well as a grant of $5,000 per year for their four-year appointment to help improve their teaching. After four years, they become Distinguished Teaching Professors.
Here is a closer look at this year’s winners.
Tomis Kapitan made it precisely one semester into his college career before his plans to become an historian were derailed.
At the suggestion of an academic adviser, he added an introductory philosophy course to his second semester class load, and it was love at first sight.
“The questions presented in that class took my breath away. What is the purpose of life? Is there a purpose? How do we know anything at all? I was amazed that some people were able to devote their lives to studying and discussing these fundamental matters and I decided to become one of them,” Kapitan says.
He has committed his professional life to helping students explore those same questions, allowing them to tag along on his quest for truth.
“I have spent the last 40 years trying to answer those questions,” he says. “I have my theories, but I have long since given up the illusion of any certainty.”
His fellow philosophers, on the other hand, seem to have settled upon at least one certainty: Kapitan belongs to an elite class of teachers.
“Professor Kapitan is, without doubt, the very best teacher in the Department of Philosophy,” says David Buller, chair of that department, who supports his argument by pointing out that Kapitan has earned the highest merit rating in the department every year but two since he arrived in 1992.
While impressive, such numbers don’t begin to illuminate the extent to which Kapitan engages students, says Buller, who elaborates by telling the story of a lecture on the morality of terrorism delivered by Kapitan shortly after the attacks in 2001.
Buller arrived at the appointed time, late on a Friday afternoon, astounded to find that not only were all 120 seats in the classroom filled, but an additional 24 students sat outside in the hallway straining to hear. They were not disappointed. Just as the room could not contain the crowd, nor could the allotted hour accommodate all that Kapitan had to convey. He ended up holding court into the night at a local watering hole helping students explore the many facets of the complex topic.
Such instances demonstrate Kapitan’s skill at taking the uninitiated by the hand and opening up their minds to philosophical thought.
Indeed, Buller likes to kid Kapitan that he is trying to teach his way through the entire undergraduate catalog (he has taught one-third of the potential offerings, 16 distinct courses). However, Kapitan admits, his true love is working with upper-level students.
Perhaps that is not surprising considering that NIU’s master of arts program in philosophy is ranked second in the nation and attracts outstanding students, the best of whom gravitate to Kapitan’s classes. They are drawn not only by his knowledge of the subject matter but also by something less tangible.
“Professor Kapitan has the uncommon attribute of being a model philosopher to his students, and especially to his graduate students,” explains former student Aaron Holland, now a Ph.D. “He taught us not only the subject matter of philosophy, but also what it means to be a philosopher.”
One can only wonder if history students would have been so deeply moved.
Kapitan’s previous honors include having been named the Distinguished Alumnus Lecturer by the Philosophy Department at Indiana University and being selected the Teacher of the Year by the East Carolina University chapter of Phi Sigma Tau.
The teachers’ teacher
For Lee Shumow, “professor” is more than just a job description or a title. It is her identity.
“It’s essential to what I do, to who I am and what I am trying to do in the world,” Shumow says. “Teaching for me is not a vocation, it’s an avocation. I feel very lucky to have a career I love.”
That deep and abiding enthusiasm for her job is but one of the traits that puts Shumow in an elite class of teachers who not only effectively convey information, but also connect with and inspire their students on a personal level, colleagues say. She is particularly zealous in her mission to create teachers with a keen insight into the importance of the adolescent years.
“She has a tremendous passion for the discipline, for her students and for her students as future teachers,” says Jean Pierce, assistant chair of the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations. “She is firmly committed to creating the best secondary education professionals possible and she leads by setting a very powerful example.”
That leadership by example is no accident. Shumow is always keenly aware of the fact that she is teaching future (or current) teachers. Whether introducing undergraduates to the basics of adolescent development, or guiding doctoral candidates through the intricacies of high-level research, she tries to model best practices.
For instance, Shumow is a firm believer that she can spot an outstanding teacher by his or her ability to speak about the strengths and weaknesses of individual students.
Not surprisingly, Shumow’s own conversations are sprinkled with biographical tidbits about students, such as who comes from a family of 12 siblings or who has a deep interest in poetry. Such information surfaces naturally, she says, in the course of the free-wheeling conversations that take place in class, from reading the journal entries that students must submit weekly, from guiding students through research or from writing letters of recommendation to help them earn internships and jobs.
She also is very current on the whereabouts of former students who routinely e-mail her with reports of their progress and requests for advice. So frequent are such requests that she formerly hosted a support group one Saturday each month where former-students-turned-teachers talked through the challenges they are facing.
All of that personal attention makes a lasting impression on students.
“She epitomizes the essence of humanity in teaching,” writes Pamela Parker, a veteran educator for whom Shumow served as dissertation chair while she earned her doctoral degree. “She encourages, challenges, stimulates and inspires her students to accomplish great things. I am grateful to have experienced her extraordinary commitment to our profession.”
Letters from colleagues and former students supporting Shumow’s selection for the Presidential Teaching Professor were filled with similar prose, but Wilma Miranda, chair of LEPF, sums it up most succinctly.
“In all she does, Dr. Shumow is dedicated to the improvement of learning and development conditions for all children,” Miranda writes. “This is a teacher’s teacher.”
In addition to her new status as a Presidential Teaching Professor, Shumow has received numerous other honors including the Exceptional Contributions to Teaching Award from the College of Education in 2004 and the NIU Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award in 2005.
Taxes might be as certain as death, but the topic need not be deathly dull, says Jim Young.
Young, who is chair of the Department of Accountancy and serves as the Crowe Chizek Professor of Accountancy, receives high marks for his work in the classroom.
Whether introducing novices to the U.S. tax code, or instructing veteran accountants pursuing a master’s in taxation, he tries to make his subject come alive with interactive lectures and current case studies. Proof of his success can be found in his ratings from students and peers, both of whom have put him at the top of their rankings since he joined the department in 2000.
“Jim is truly gifted in his ability to break through the rules to the core concepts and then clearly articulate those concepts to others in a manner that is understandable,” says Young’s colleague Pam Smith, who serves as the KPMG Professor of Accountancy.
Yet even more impressive than his ability to motivate and inspire students, say his colleagues, has been his ability to do the same for professors throughout his field.
In 1997, while teaching at George Mason University, Young co-authored a paper along with Patrick Wilkie (who now teaches at the University of Virginia) that questioned the generations-old method of teaching students about taxation working through the computation of taxable income during a semester. That approach, they argued, failed to provide students with the proper context, or framework, required to understand taxation as more than just a set of rules.
As an alternative, Young and Wilkie developed a course that approached topics from the standpoint of how that law applies to different taxpayer groups (individuals or corporations, for examples) and placed those things in perspective by providing students some of the history behind the U.S. tax code.
The approach was a hit with students and earned the duo a nomination for the American Taxation Association’s Teaching Innovation Award. It also put them at the head of a movement that for the last decade has been changing the way introductory tax classes are taught around the nation.
“The paper he developed led others in the academic community to think differently,” says Kate Mantzke, Kieso Professor of Accountancy, who has employed Young’s methods in her own introductory tax courses since she came to NIU six years ago.
Another colleague, Brad Cripe, who joined the department last fall, only recently adopted Young’s method. He admits to being skeptical at the outset, but after just one semester emerged a believer.
“I think that students really respond to it because there are so many rules and exceptions that the traditional method becomes tedious. When we can explain the history behind the code and develop the appropriate contexts, it makes more sense to students – and allows them to see the evolution of the U.S. tax system,” Cripe says.
While the PTP puts Young into an esteemed class of teachers on campus, his opportunities to teach are fewer these days. Named chair of accountancy last year, his administrative duties limit him to a handful of courses a year. However, he cherishes those opportunities to get in front of a class and try out his latest ideas.
“Some things work right out of the box, and that’s great. Some things don’t work, and you go through an iterative process. It’s always a work in progress,” he says.
The Presidential Teaching Professorship is the latest, and the highest, in a string of teaching honors earned by Young, including the Teaching Excellence Award from George Mason University in 1997, the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Seidman School of Business at Grand Valley State University in 1993 and the Excellence-In-Teaching Award from Michigan State University in 1984.
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