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Posted Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Introducing the 2012 Winners of the Bok Award for excellence in graduate student teaching

In recognition of the central role GSAS students play in Harvard’s teaching mission, the Graduate School joins with the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning every year to present the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates. Five TFs receive the award, selected from a long list of students nominated by their departments. Winners receive a $1,000 prize, from a gift by David G. Nathan ’51, MD ’55, the Robert A. Stranahan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and his wife Jean Louise Friedman Nathan.

Meet the 2012 winners, honored by Interim GSAS Dean Richard Tarrant, Bok Center Executive Director Terry Aladjem, and fellow graduate students at a Bok Center ceremony on April. And view a list of GSAS TFs who won Certificates of Distinction this spring, based on high Q evaluations.

Cosette Creamer

Cosette Creamer

Despite pursuing both a JD and a PhD from the Department of Government, Cosette Creamer has found time to excel as a teacher in almost every capacity available to a graduate student, including the sophomore tutorial, lecture courses, and seminars of her own design.

“A star in the classroom from her first experience as a teaching fellow,” according to a nomination letter from senior Government faculty, Creamer created and led the interdisciplinary “Human Rights Scholars Seminar,” which began as a not-for-credit workshop but has since become a for-credit seminar in the Department. Students consistently praise the course for its positive effects on their writing and research skills, and it has already launched successful senior theses in several departments. Another seminar Creamer led last fall, “The Police State: Power, Politics, and Authority,” featured a series of organized simulations in which students adopted the roles of key policymakers. She arranged for the Bok Center to film these, so that students could review and critique their performances.

Because of her long experience and natural proclivity, the faculty appointed Creamer as Departmental Teaching Fellow this year, and, not surprisingly, she has been outstanding, faculty leaders have said — “the best DTF the department has ever had.”

Valeria Espinosa

Valeria Espinosa

A PhD student in the Statistics Department, Valeria Espinosa consistently enlivens her teaching with fun and innovative real-world scenarios, helping students to see why a given topic is important, and how they can use it. In her work as a section leader in Stat 110, 140, and 240, she goes far beyond the material covered in lecture, probing the outer limits of the subjects she covers.

Espinosa has implemented pedagogical innovations to make experimental design – the subject of Stat 140 – lively and relevant. In a field where real-life examples are crucial to motivating students, she decided to conduct small-scale experiments in class, devoting considerable energy to tailoring those experiments to the specific interests of students from a wide range of academic fields, and in many cases working with the authors of original studies to acquire unpublished data.

Espinosa’s work has had a profound effect on her students, both in the classroom and in nontraditional settings, through the Harvard Bridge Tutor Program. A true leader, she intuitively understands the diversity of needs that students bring to any educational endeavor, and she is committed to meeting those needs with a remarkably positive attitude.

Joseph McMullen

Joseph McMullen

As a third-year PhD student in Celtic languages and literatures, Joseph McMullen has proven himself to be a naturally gifted teacher who works hard at his craft and clearly loves his engagement with students.

In Celtic 138, McMullen was an invaluable resource for students encountering difficult texts, “steering them away from blind alleys and offering additional information and readings,” says department chair Catherine McKenna. For a demanding assignment in which students had to research a character from a Welsh text not on the syllabus, he helped them navigate a 12th-century compendium of stories and lore from the British Isles — and a modern edition full of difficult abbreviations and obscure references (many in Welsh). Thanks largely to Joey’s generosity of time and expertise, the course ranks as perhaps “the best undergraduate teaching experiences I have had in seven years at Harvard,” Professor McKenna says.

In evaluations, students note that McMullen is always responsive, and always excited about the material in a way that triggered their own excitement. “Joey was one of the best section leaders I have ever had,” one student wrote. Another student, voicing a common sentiment, put it this way: “I really felt like he wanted to help and was there for us — even in the middle of the night! Joey is going to be a fantastic professor.”

Anand Patel

Anand Patel

For Anand Patel, being a brilliant mathematician is no obstacle to teaching non-mathematicians. When he talks math, which he does at all hours of the day and night, it’s hard not to want to join in. Patel’s passion and imagination are universally engaging, whether he’s grabbing the attention of the least-prepared undergraduates or rewarding the dedication of the very successful ones.

Faced twice with the department’s toughest teaching assignment, the lowest-level Math Ma course, Patel embraced the challenge of making students believe in themselves and in their ability to succeed. He “taught them to engage by insisting on engagement,” writes Professor Robin Gottlieb, Professor of the Practice of Teaching in Mathematics, “and taught them to put in the time required to overcome difficulties by demonstrating that he was ready to put in his own herculean effort.”

Last fall, when some of his Math Ma student-athletes couldn’t make afternoon office hours, Patel started holding them in the evening; the sessions became legendary, attracting students outside of his own class. He made the work fun, explained the material from a variety of perspectives, and described convincing real-world applications. “Best math teacher I’ve ever had,” wrote one student, in Q evaluations that were among the highest in memory for this course.

Elizabeth Sefton

Elizabeth Sefton

In the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Elizabeth Sefton is helping to redefine what it means to run a successful laboratory session. As a Teaching Fellow for the challenging OEB 139 (Evolution of the Vertebrates) in 2010, and as one of two founding teaching fellows for the ambitious new course OEB 150 (Vertebrate Evolution and Development) last fall, Sefton went to unprecedented lengths to assemble lab specimens each week, scouring the hidden corners of the Museum of Comparative Zoology for subjects that would illuminate the hugely diverse range of topics the courses covered.

Professor Farish Jenkins, one of the faculty leaders of OEB 150, says that never in his 40 years of teaching had a richer array of materials been availed to students in lab. The weekly showcase of “eggs and embryos, prepared dissections, skeletons, fossils, and live specimens” routinely attracted Jenkins and his faculty partner, Associate Professor Arhat Abzhanov, who invariably found Sefton to be “constantly and completely engaged for the entire three-hour period,” her “whirlwind energy a marvel to behold.”

The labs were fundamental to the courses’ success, and Sefton’s unwavering commitment, enthusiasm, and endless dedication to sharing the joys of learning make her an exemplar of the power of a teacher.