'That Love for Learning': Student Views of 2014 Sherrerd Teaching Prize Winners

Faculty members (from left) Rodger Blum, Mary Murphy and Caroline Melly are recipients of this year's Sherrerd Prizes for outstanding teaching. Photo by Shannon Johnson '15.

What are the traits of a truly great teacher? And who is that teacher?

Someone who “pushes the notion of learning from mistakes,” says Alexandra Naranjo ’16.

Someone who will ask, “How are you and what are you feeling? Not just, ‘How will you get your work done?’” says Chloe Beckman ’17.

Someone who “teaches you that love for learning,” says Dannia Guzman ’15, “and all the ways that learning comes through life.”

The students were describing three faculty members chosen for the annual Kathleen Compton Sherrerd ’54 and John J.F. Sherrerd Prizes for Distinguished Teaching.

The 2014 prize recipients are: Rodger Blum, professor of dance and department chair; Caroline Melly, assistant professor of anthropology; and Mary Murphy, senior lecturer of mathematics and statistics.

The three educators will be honored at a ceremony open to the Smith community on Thursday, Oct. 16, at 4:30 p.m. in the Carroll Room of the Campus Center.

The Sherrerd prizes were established in 2002 by a contribution from the late Kathleen Sherrerd ’54 and John Sherrerd to highlight the college’s ongoing commitment to outstanding teaching. Each year, students, faculty and alumnae submit nominations for teachers who display superior skill in fostering learning and inspiring achievement—both in and out of the classroom.

Professor of English Michael Thurston, chair of the 2014 Sherrerd Prize Committee, said this year’s three winners “are among the best of many fine teachers at Smith.”

The honorees display “our shared aim to delight and instruct,” Thurston said. “All three clearly move and motivate students, bringing out their best and helping them toward their goals.”

Each of the 2014 honorees has an impressive resume.

Blum, a member of the Smith faculty since 1993, is an accomplished dancer, ballet master and choreographer. He has created numerous innovative, multimedia works for the dance department, Five College events and other programs.

Melly, who joined the faculty six yeas ago, is a sociocultural anthropologist who teaches courses on contemporary topics such as transnationalism, the Internet and urban anthropology. Her current book manuscript examines the emergence of global mobility as a cherished national value and a force shaping governance in Dakar, Senegal.

Murphy, who has been at Smith since 1983, is a leader in efforts to improve precalculus teaching to students worldwide. She has spent several summers volunteer teaching in rural Bolivia at a college that has been recognized by the United Nations for its anti-poverty work.

Equally impressive are the words that current and former students chose to describe the three faculty members on nomination forms: Caring, hardworking, humble, challenging, inspiring, accepting, passionate, funny and kind.

Naranjo, a dance major who took her first ballet class at Smith in her sophomore year, says Blum was the antithesis of dance teachers she’d had in high school who were heavy on criticism and light on helping students find joy in their art.

“So much of dance is about rejection. But Rodger really pushed the notion of learning from mistakes,” said Naranjo who will dance in a piece Blum choreographed for the Faculty Fall Dance Concert to be held November 20–22.

“He found a way to get me to believe in myself,” Naranjo added. “My dancing is not about perfection anymore. It’s about what’s happening on the inside.”

Britanny Claiborne ’16 said Blum employs humor at the same time he models hard work in the dance studio.

“He breaks up that serious tenseness of the art form,” she said. “And he likes to know students personally. I love getting emails from him because he always throws in a joke or two.”
Claiborne, who is majoring in math, said she came to Smith “not wanting to dance anymore” because the discipline seemed so unforgiving. But a class with Blum reawakened her desire to keep dancing as a part of her life.

“He put back in me that sense that I can dance because it’s an art form,” Claiborne said. “I can make this work for me.”

Melly’s students cited a similar ability to share her passion for anthropology.

Bonnie Hawkins ’15 remembers struggling with an introductory anthropology course she took with Melly in the spring of her sophomore year.

“I’m a biochemistry major and I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Hawkins said. “But it ended up being one of my favorite courses.”

Hawkins said Melly’s engaging class sessions and the support she provided outside the classroom helped Hawkins build confidence in her own academic skills.

“I’d go to her office hours every week and would end up being there for hours because we’d get into such great conversations,” Hawkins said. “I’ve learned that I can read texts I’m unfamiliar with and define new ideas. If you have patience and try to think critically, eventually you will understand.”

Beckman said she’s been inspired by Melly’s teaching since she took an anthropology class as a first-year student. She recalls Melly opening that class with a video of Florida Governor Rick Scott opining that his state didn’t need any more anthropologists.

“That led us to start talking about all the different ways anthropology could benefit people,” Beckman said. “Her classes always have lots of activities and discussion. She’s really passionate about what she’s doing and that spreads.”

After Beckman was injured in a car crash last year she said Melly helped her complete a visual anthropology project that drew on Beckman’s experience as a survivor.

“As my adviser, she would ask me ‘How are you and what are you feeling?’ not just, ‘How will you get the work done?’” Beckman said. “She’s very approachable and open. She really cares.”

Caring is the quality that Thu Do ’16 singled out in describing Murphy’s teaching in mathematics.

Do took calculus with Murphy during her first semester at Smith. It was her first college math course and her first time studying outside her home country of Vietnam.

“I didn’t know what to expect or what was expected of me,” Do said. “I was really impressed by the way she takes care of her students. She’s very warm and funny. You feel comfortable talking to her about anything.”

Do said Murphy played a key role in her decision to double major in math and economics.

“It’s because of how much I enjoyed studying math with her,” said Do, who is a recruiting and data assistant in the Lazarus Center for Career Development. “Knowing that as a professor she will always be there to help you is a great comfort.”

For  Guzman, Murphy has been a mentor and a friend.

They bonded during Guzman’s first semester over the fact that they both speak Spanish. Guzman also stayed in Murphy ‘s house while she was enrolled in a summer research program at the Clark Science Center.

“She’s been very supportive of me—in and out of the classroom,” said Guzman, a psychology major.

“She knows how to empower students,” Guzman said. “Especially in math, where many of us feel intimidated and fearful.”

What are the most important lessons she’s learned from Murphy?

“That mistakes can be points of growth and opportunity,” said Guzman. “And just that love of learning.”

Murphy herself is always learning, Guzman noted.

“At her house she’s always doing puzzles or reading or talking about what she sees in the world,” Guzman said. “She teaches you that love for learning and all the ways that learning comes through life.”

Nominations for the 2015 Sherrerd Prizes will be accepted until the last day of first-semester classes on Thursday, December 11. Nominations can be submitted online at http://www.smith.edu/events/sherrerd_nominations.php