Teachable Moments: 2016 Sherrerd Prize Recipients Reflect on Their Work as Educators

Naomi J. Miller, professor of English and the study of women and gender, says patience with the learning process—both for herself and her students—is key to effective teaching.

Payal Banerjee, associate professor of sociology, cites compassion, mindfulness and “a great deal of humor” as qualities that sustain her efforts in the classroom.

For Assistant Professor of History Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, excellent teaching is about “learning alongside her students” and modeling a “willingness to learn something new.”

These three faculty members are recipients of this year’s Kathleen Compton Sherrerd ’54 and John F. Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching. The annual awards recognize Smith faculty who have elevated teaching to the highest levels.

A celebration of this year’s honorees will be held Thursday, Oct. 13, at 4:30 p.m. in the Campus Center Carroll Room. Current and former students will introduce the award recipients; a reception, open to all, will follow in Wilson Atrium on the second floor of the Campus Center.

The biographies of this year’s Sherrerd Prize winners—as well as comments submitted by student and faculty nominators—point to their outstanding skills as educators.

Here’s what the 2016 award recipients had to say about what inspires them and what they have learned from teaching at Smith.

unnamedNaomi J. Miller, a member of the Smith faculty since 2004, grew up in a family of educators. Her father was a professor at UCLA, and her mother earned a Ph.D. in medieval Japanese literature from Cambridge University at the same time Miller earned her Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard.

Miller had other role models who were passionate about education.

“When I was a high school student taking Shakespeare and modern drama classes at UCLA, I remember my professor telling me, ‘I get to read books and talk to students about them for my profession. What could possibly be better than that?’” she recalls. “Forty years later, I can say I wholeheartedly agree.”

Miller cites patience and humility—the quality of being prepared to learn something new in every class—as essential ingredients of good teaching. Another is “a willingness to embrace the unexpected” she says, as each class represents a dynamic community of individuals.

Among many memorable teaching moments at Smith, Miller cites an experience last semester in her seminar course on “Shakespeare’s Women,” when her students were discussing material involving sexual and emotional abuse.

To help students feel comfortable expressing their reactions and being sensitive to one another, Miller invited them to participate in a guided meditation with her. It was her first time trying a strategy she says was inspired by fellow Smith faculty member Ruth Ozeki ’80, Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language and Literature.

“The ensuing discussion was perhaps the most grounded and mutually aware of the semester because of the shared level of trust,” Miller says. “After that, we practiced contemplative meditation at other key moments, which helped us to really speak to and hear each other on challenging subjects.”

payal-banerjee-picnic-1-r2Payal Banerjee, a member of the Smith faculty since 2009, says teachers she encountered early on helped spark her own love for learning.

“In second grade, our literature teacher introduced me to the whimsical world of Sukumar Ray’s poetry, brimming with magic creatures and extraordinary characters who, for example, would wonder how a slice of moonbeam settled itself on the grass right next to the sunlight,” she says.

Banerjee’s teachers and professors “opened one doorway after another—languages, applied statistics, maps, dance, critical race theory and seeking out the undeniable interconnections in the things we learn,” she says.

They also showed her that education is about “recognizing the immense talent and human capacity in your students and working forward from that benchmark.”

Other qualities needed for good teaching include “compassion, mindfulness, time, openness and a great deal of humor,” Banerjee says.

In her Smith courses on sociology, gender and political economy, Banerjee relies on her students for ideas.“Their curiosity guides new additions to course materials every year,” she says. “My students bring out the best in me.”

pryor_elizabeth_11For Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, a member of the Smith faculty since 2009, a fascination with history is what drew her to teaching.

“I love U.S. history, especially finding out about the stories and the actions of people of color, of women, of people with disabilities and others who are rarely spoken about in the national narrative,” she says.

During her years in elementary and high school, teachers rarely addressed African American history or women’s history—“and never black women’s history,” Pryor says. “In graduate school, I met teachers who were passionate about teaching about black women. I read the books they assigned, and it cracked my world open. I felt compelled to share those stories.”

In her classes at Smith, Pryor feels most effective when she is learning alongside her students.

“I love my students,” she says. “Together, we make sense of the ways that questions of race and gender intersect and unfold in the stories we study. My most generative experiences in the classroom have often been the most uncomfortable ones. I think it’s important to model the process of being teachable—of being willing to learn something new, while realizing that often learning something new is a little awkward.”

Pryor cites a course on slave revolts she taught two years ago that coincided with the police killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. She says her students rose to the challenge of grappling with what they described as “the violence of history”—as seen in both the course materials and the world outside the classroom.

“I was proud of the environment I helped create in which students took intellectual responsibility for themselves and engaged so deeply with the material,” Pryor says. “When I do this well, I find that my students allow themselves to be vulnerable and humble. At these moments, we do some of our best collaborative work.”