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2016 Great Teacher Award
University of Kentucky Alumni Association
At the risk of putting you on the spot, what contribution to teaching do you believe led to your award recognition during the 2015-2016 academic school year?
I think that it is most important to credit the group of students who took the initiative to nominate me for the award. They are excellent students for whom it is typical to put in the extra effort on behalf of things important to them. I think they put in the effort for me because we had a particularly good relationship. They were very responsive to my teaching, and I was responsive to their excitement about the course material as well as about their intellectual life beyond the classroom.
In your opinion, what are the qualities of a great teacher?
My colleagues and I often discuss this (in slightly different terms) and agree that the ability to make the students as interested in the material as we are is essential to great teaching. But this involves taking the students seriously and listening to the students as well as finding a way for them to listen to us.
What do you find most gratifying about teaching?
The most gratifying moments in the classroom are when students engage in the discussion, challenging the material, each other and even me (!)
What makes teaching challenging?
Finding a way to help students understand difficult material without losing its complexity and richness is a major challenge. Another challenge is to communicate effectively with a group students who have a wide range of abilities and backgrounds.
How have you navigated those challenges?
I respond to the challenges I mentioned in several ways, but what is most important for me is to know all the students as best as I can. In addition, participation, repetition and demonstration of the relevance of the material are crucial strategies.
I am fortunate to teach small to medium-sized classes (12-60 students). The first thing I do is learn the students’ names. Then I also lead as many discussions as I can to learn how the students understand the material. (In the courses with 60 students, I sit in half the discussions each week.) Here I encourage the students to talk: to make points and ask questions, to listen and respond to each other, and I empower them by taking seriously everything they say. I review all of their assignments and make sure that my comments and those of the TAs are clear. They also know that they can talk to me or the TAs privately. The architecture faculty (and the design faculty, in general) also have an advantage because we see the students’ work in courses outside of our own. As a result, students and faculty have a broader sense of each other’s work, and the faculty members have the opportunity to integrate material from one course in the work of another.
What are your interests outside of teaching (i.e., hobbies)?
I read novels and newspapers and then make sure I get up and move around on the tennis court!
What is your favorite book and/or author?
This is a tough one. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and (similarly) Hunger by Knut Hamsun. They are both about crazed intellectuals!
What would want to be if you weren’t a teacher?
Honestly, I have no idea.
What advice would you give to faculty at the beginning of her/his teaching career?
Hang in there. Recognition like the University Teaching Award is fantastic but unusual. Use the criticism to move forward (every year you have a new class!) and remember that the small victories really do mean a lot.
Wallis Miller is the Charles P. Graves Associate Professor of Architecture in the College of Design.