Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 27, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — At first glance, Northern Illinois University’s 2009 Presidential Teaching Professors could not be more different.
Laurie Elish-Piper prepares teachers to teach reading, one of the most fundamental of subjects. At the other end of the spectrum is Stephen Martin, who works to help his students understand the theoretical foundations of the subatomic of the universe.
Somewhere in between is David Gunkel, who teaches students how to communicate using the latest technology, while placing that work into a philosophical perspective that is as old as the written word.
However, when you look beyond the differences in what the three teach, they actually share much in common.
All three are considered outstanding researchers who have made important contributions to their field, are deeply involved in the academic life of their departments and respected by their peers.
The most striking similarity, however, is that when they step in front of a class, each feels a solemn duty to focus intently on the needs of each and every student. They believe that they have a responsibility to not just help students learn information, but to help them internalize and apply it.
And all three give generously of their time beyond the classroom to help students – whether they are new undergrads or seasoned veterans pursuing a doctoral degree.
It was the traits they share in common that helped each to be selected as a Presidential Teaching Professor, the university’s highest honor for outstanding teaching.
Presidential Teaching Professors receive a salary increase and grant money to further develop their classroom talents over their four-year appointments. After four years, they are awarded the title of Distinguished Teaching Professors.
Here is a closer look at this year’s winners.
For Laurie Elish-Piper, stepping in front of a class is like engaging in a bit of performance art.
She wants her students to not only learn the lesson on that day’s syllabus, but also to experience a very personalized form of teaching that she hopes they will someday apply in their own classrooms.
“My goal is not just to talk about how my students should teach, but to show them how to teach,” says Elish-Piper, a professor in the Department of Literacy Education.
For her that means approaching every class as a gathering of individuals, each of whom brings a unique history and background to the class, which influences the way they learn. Her challenge, she says, is to take those factors into account and tailor her teaching to the needs of each individual.
According to colleagues and students, Elish-Piper is quite successful in that quest and an outstanding choice for a Presidential Teaching Professor.
“As a student in her classes, it was impossible not to catch her enthusiasm. I felt I was learning every single second,” says Angela Howard, who studied under Elish-Piper as both an undergrad and master’s student. “The way she managed her classroom and used her instructional time has inspired me to make learning in my classroom as engaging and purposeful as possible.”
Jerry O’Shea, director of curriculum and assessment at Marquardt School District 15 in Glendale Heights, already had been through two graduate programs when he came to NIU to complete his doctorate. “I believe I grew the most in my learning and development of education issues in her classroom,” he says, adding that he still reflects on lessons learned in her classes 10 years later.
Admiration of Elish-Piper extends to her colleagues.
In his letter of nomination, Norm Stahl, chair of the Department of Literacy Education, pointed out that he has had the privilege of working alongside three past recipients of the Presidential Teaching Professorship. “These individuals have all brought great honor to our institution and demonstrated the very best in pedagogical practice. Dr. Elish-Piper clearly meets, if not exceeds, the standards set by these remarkable individuals,” he said.
As a Presidential Teaching Professor, Elish-Piper hopes to model her teaching style for a new audience: her fellow members of the NIU faculty.
“A lot of people seem to believe that if you practice student-centered teaching you can’t be rigorous, or that you can’t cover the required curriculum. I argue that you can,” she says.
Furthermore, her own schedule would make the case that being busy is no excuse for not using a student-centered approach. In addition to carrying a full teaching load, Elish-Piper also oversees the NIU Literacy Clinic, advises graduate students, researches and publishes, speaks at national conferences, collaborates with and advises school districts throughout the region and actively participates in organizations such as the Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers, where she currently is the president-elect and program chair.
While all of this keeps her on the run, Elish-Piper says her heart still belongs to the classroom.
“I really enjoy teaching,” she says. “My favorite part of the week is when I am in class.”
Like many children of his generation, David Gunkel grew up dreaming of becoming an astronaut.
He came closer than most, earning a commission to the U.S. Naval Academy. His plan was to pull good grades there, move on to the cockpit of a fighter jet and then ultimately into a space capsule. Before that could happen, however, military doctors decided he didn’t have the right stuff.
That hasn’t stopped him from working in space, however. He just traded outer space for cyberspace. In the end, it has proven to be a good swap, he says. The arrival of the space shuttle made orbital flight almost mundane, while the explosion of information technology has opened up vast new vistas to be explored.
Today Gunkel is considered one of the leading thinkers in the area of information and communication technology, researching the philosophical dimensions of the exchange of information on the digital frontier. A philosopher by training, his classes are a unique blend that combines the alphabet soup of the digital age (HTML, JPEG, bits and bytes) with a liberal seasoning of commentary from great thinkers such as Hegel, Kant and Descartes.
The goal of that approach, says Gunkel, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is not just to teach students how to use computers, but rather to help them become engaged critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. He strives to cultivate in them a cultural literacy that helps consider the possibilities that technology creates.
His students attest to his success in doing so.
“Professor Gunkel’s teaching is second to none,” says former student Timothy Bond, who now works in sports information at Missouri State University. “He has a knack for instilling in the student not only the knowledge to succeed, but the diverse means in which knowledge can be applied to other areas of life.”
Others have been so moved by Gunkel’s teaching that it literally changed the course of their lives.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that it completely changed the course of my academic career,” wrote former student Paul Booth, who had planned a career as a documentary filmmaker but is now a newly minted assistant professor of new media at DePaul University. “After spending a semester with Dr. Gunkel, and watching his obvious enjoyment of the subject matter, I decided to switch emphases.”
As a Presidential Teaching Professor, Gunkel hopes to share some of that excitement with peers by demonstrating to other faculty that communication technology can be used to enrich just about any subject. Whether it be exploring the limits of what can be accomplished in a PowerPoint presentation, or recreating ancient worlds in the virtual realm of Second Life, technology can be harnessed to illuminate ideas in new and exciting ways he says.
“I think part of my calling – my duty – as a Presidential Teaching Professor is to help people see something that can be transformative of their pedagogy,” Gunkel says. “We are teaching a generation that is very technologically engaged, it would be silly of us not to use the tools and the things that they connect with and understand.”
Theoretical physicists around the world know NIU’s Stephen Martin as author of the “Supersymmetry Primer,” an introduction to an arcane area of science that seeks to fill in the missing pieces of the Standard Model of the universe, contemplating subatomic particles that have yet to be discovered.
Undergraduates in NIU’s Department of Physics are more likely to know him as the professor who teaches them about the far simpler (by comparison) topics of electricity and magnetism.
While far apart on the academic spectrum, those two groups share one thing in common – they both believe Martin is an outstanding teacher, and their accolades helped lead to his selection as one of NIU’s Presidential Teaching Professors for 2009.
“Dr. Martin has earned the respect of his colleagues and students by successfully and consistently teaching the most difficult courses in advanced physics with clarity and thoughtfulness,” says NIU colleague Gerald Blazey, a Distinguished Research Professor and a collaborator on the International Linear Collider Program operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Martin’s “Supersymmetry Primer,” Blazey says, has become the standard teaching tool in the field and has been cited more than 700 times by researchers in the area of high energy physics. Such expertise puts Martin in great demand as a lecturer across the United States and abroad, including at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.
Addressing such groups is an honor, says Martin, but he still enjoys the challenge of opening the eyes of undergraduates, recalling the days when he was on the other side of those lectures.
“I think much of my success as a teacher comes down to empathy,” he says. “Once upon a time I was a student and I remember that learning this stuff was hard. So I try to put myself in the shoes of the student and say, ‘What is the really confusing part?’ and try to work through that.”
To help his students grasp some of the most complex questions in science he often uses simple examples. Sometimes has students contemplate questions they might have first asked in kindergarten, such as “Why is the sky blue?”
Similarly, rather than rely upon flashy technology to teach his cutting edge topic, Martin is much more likely to spend lecture time at the front of class with chalk or marker in hand. As he lectures he dashes off equations, fielding questions on the fly, interjecting examples that illuminate the topic at hand.
“I think working at the blackboard forces me to move at an appropriate pace,” he says. “Students seem more inclined to ask questions, making me explore aspects I hadn’t considered. It allows me to adapt to the needs of the students. My lectures change in real time.”
Should those efforts not quite succeed in making a concept stick, students know that they can almost always find Martin in his office. Some have commented that they aren’t sure what his office hours are because he always seems to be around and available to help.
While some might marvel that one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists would devote so much time and energy to helping undergraduates work through the basics of the field, Martin says he finds the time spent teaching those topics to be energizing.
“Teaching the basics keeps me sharp,” he says. “There are always times in your research when you feel stuck. But I know that if I can go into the classroom and do a good job teaching I am earning my keep.”
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