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Recognizing Excellent Teaching

By Eric Sean Weld

Last April 21, each time a faculty member walked across the Sweeney Concert Hall stage to accept one of the four inaugural Sherrerd Teaching Awards, an uproar of cheers and applause from Smith students, colleagues and community members made clear the audience's appreciation of the winners' efforts and talent in and beyond the classroom.

The awards, named for Kathleen Compton Sherrerd '54 and John J. F. Sherrerd, whose generous donation to the college helped establish the gift, will be given annually to Smith faculty members in recognition of their distinguished teaching records and demonstrated enthusiasm and excellence in pedagogy. President Carol T. Christ, who helped initiate the awards with the gift from the Sherrerds, has emphasized the need for making teaching a top priority among the duties of Smith's academicians.

The winners of the 2004 Sherrerd Teaching Awards were David Cohen, professor of mathematics; Shizuka Hsieh, assistant professor of chemistry; Mahnaz Mahdavi, associate professor of economics; and Vittoria Poletto, senior lecturer in Italian language and literature. Each award included a framed citation and a check for $5,000.

The winners were chosen by a committee, from among more than 100 nominations from students, faculty and administrators throughout the Smith community. They received their awards at the April presentation, which featured comments by President Christ, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Susan Bourque, Kathleen Sherrerd and others, as well as acknowledgements from each recipient. The presentation also included the screening of a video of the four winners in their classrooms and labs, with comments by their students and colleagues.

David Cohen, a member of the Smith faculty since 1968, was the first (in alphabetical order) to receive his award.

"When I was called to the stage, I felt how privileged I was to be associated with a truly world-class faculty of teachers," recalls Cohen. "It was very thrilling. It felt gratifying and I was extremely honored. The glow that began with that day of recognition has stayed with me and is an ongoing incentive to maintain the efforts that I put into my teaching."

Shizuka Hsieh, who joined Smith's chemistry faculty in 2001, says she feels fortunate to teach at an institution that values quality teaching as one of its foremost objectives. When she claimed her award, she recounts, "I felt lucky to have colleagues who share in my enthusiasm for teaching and who help me tackle questions about how to present and connect concepts in chemistry."

In winning the Sherrerd Prize, Hsieh and each of her co-recipients have emphasized that they are surrounded by dedicated teachers at Smith, many of whom are equally deserving of such an award.

"The Sherrerd Prizes recognize what we most value as a college: dedication to teaching and distinction in doing it well," explained President Christ. "The violinist Jascha Heifitz once expressed it memorably. Shortly after his appointment as a professor of music at UCLA, he was asked what had prompted him to turn from performing to teaching. Heifitz quoted his old violin professor in Russia, who promised him that some day he would be ‘good enough to teach.' We are blessed at Smith that we have many faculty ‘good enough to teach.'"

Randall Bartlett, professor of economics and chair of the Sherrerd Awards committee, who has received other awards from students and his faculty colleagues for his teaching, says the award is a significant acknowledgement of the college's commitment to excellent teaching.

"If the mission of Smith is, as Sophia Smith directed, to provide ‘women with the means' of making a better world, it cannot be fulfilled without an institutional commitment to real excellence in teaching," he notes. "This award is a first and important step that is long overdue."

The Sherrerd Teaching Award is the only such award presented to Smith faculty members nominated for recognition by the entire college community. Nominations were submitted to the selection committee by students, faculty colleagues and staff administrators. Students present an annual teaching award to both a junior and senior faculty member each February at Rally Day. And the Honored Professor Award is presented each year at commencement exercises to one faculty member in recognition of long and distinguished service to the college.

But the Sherrerd Award is given special distinction for its specific recognition of and focus on the principles of teaching, not from a student perspective, but from the college and from faculty peers.

"This is the very first time that Smith as an institution has said publicly to the whole community, and especially to those members of its faculty who have given the most to teaching, ‘we value what you do,'" comments Bartlett.

When David Cohen viewed the video of the winners in their classrooms, he was "filled with a sense of pride at how much attention we all put into our teaching," he says, "and how unusual that is among institutions of higher learning."

Each year at Smith, with the presentation of the Sherrerd Awards, that attention and dedication to teaching will be recognized and honored.

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