Professor, Teach Thyself
Recipients of the Dewey Award describe how scholarship leads to greater learning—for student and teacher alike
When Geosciences Professor Dorothy Merritts learned she would receive the Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship this year, one of her first thoughts was that she would have to deliver a Common Hour lecture.
"I don't get nervous about giving lectures, because I do it all the time," she says. "But it's a tall order to give a lecture that engages both students and faculty across all disciplines. And I wanted to make students think deeply about what they're learning and the value of learning."
She needn't have worried. Merritts' enthusiasm for her discipline is infectious, and a listener cannot help but be drawn into the details of her research.
It is the same intellectual energy that animated Brad Dewey. And it is that commitment to both scholarship and teaching that his namesake award is intended to recognize.
Over the past 20 years the award has been bestowed on remarkable professors in disciplines as varied as English, biology and American studies. When you listen to these diverse scholars speak about their approaches to teaching, the role of research and the meaning of the Dewey Award, three commonalities emerge.
First, they are all fiercely dedicated educators. Second, they believe passionately in the power of research to enrich the classroom experience. Third, their ongoing scholarship makes better learners not only of their students but also of themselves.
While learning from their own scholarship, these professors are applying the findings to enrich the classroom experience.
From Ionic to Iconic
The first recipient of the Dewey Award, in 1990, was Claude Yoder '62, Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry. Yoder's research focuses on double salts, compounds that contain more than one positively or negatively charged ion. The double salt Yoder is interested in forms the inorganic portion of teeth and bone.
It is a simple structure that turns out to be enormously complex. By understanding how it behaves, doctors might know how to treat certain bone-related diseases. But Yoder is not primarily concerned with applied science. Rather, he is motivated by a desire to gain knowledge about a chemical structure.
His research has practical applications as well. For starters, he can use his scholarship, as well as the tools and methodologies involved, to enrich classroom lectures. Just as important, students have an opportunity to partici-pate. "Students are incorporated into every part of our research," Yoder says. "In fact, they're doing the research. They're my colleagues."
One such student is Natalie Flora '04, who worked with Yoder as an intern throughout her college career. She co-authored multiple academic papers with him and developed a model for measuring certain aspects of double salts that the department still uses.
"He was a truly iconic teacher," Flora says. "His classes weren't the easy classes. He expected a lot of you. But he was very concerned with helping students succeed."
Flora expresses gratitude that Yoder invested in her as a student and a researcher. "But more than that," she says, "he was a huge influence on me holistically as a person."
Today Flora is a pastoral adviser for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. "I originally planned to become a professor and influence the lives of students the way Professor Yoder influenced mine," she says. As it turns out, she is doing just that.
Chemistry research at F&M has changed in the years since Yoder was a student working with Professor Fred Snavely '49. "The attitude in those days was that, if you were going to do anything important, you had to be at a graduate school," he says. "And I thought, 'Like hell.' I knew we could take the values of an undergraduate education, with small classes and close interaction between faculty and students, and combine that with great research."
The advantages of that research accrue to the professors. "It means you're reading at least one body of literature all the time," Yoder says. "It also exposes you to new techniques. Then there is the process of publication, and the fact that other experts are evaluating your work. That's invaluable for your growth as a scientist."
Yoder feels deeply honored to have received the Dewey Award. "Brad Dewey was a role model for a lot of us," he says, "because he was an excellent scholar: thoughtful, careful, creative and dedicated to high academic standards and principles."
"Research plays a direct and an indirect role in teaching," says Joel Eigen, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and don of Ware College House. "Sometimes it's the direct use of research results in your classes. Sometimes it's the experience of research itself that you want to impart. The actual results may not be the issue; it's a matter of asking the sort of questions that animated your interest in the subject in the first place."
Eigen, who received the Dewey Award in 1995, has dedicated much of his research to examining the history of the insanity plea in criminal courts. For more than 25 years he spent his summers at the University of Cambridge reviewing 18th- and 19th-century cases and exploring developments such as the use of expert testimony. He has authored two books on the subject and is working on a third.
Most recently he has been part of an international project, centered at the University of Melbourne, that is researching the Port Arthur penal colony in Tasmania, Australia. In the 19th century the British government transported more than 62,000 convicts there. They also kept records of the prisoners throughout their internments.
Interestingly, contained within the records of the convict population are persons Eigen studied in his earlier research—cases for which he believed there was no further documentation. He will now be summering in Tasmania.
Eigen contends that such research plays a vital role in higher education. "Your effectiveness in the classroom is closely tied to your own immersion in asking fundamental questions," he says. "By going back to your blank tablet and posing questions, you're piquing your own curiosity, and you're better able to impart what's exciting about your discipline."
Eigen has been assisted in posing those questions by several students, including Lisa Bonchek Adams '91. Adams first met Eigen when she sat in on his Intro to Sociology class as a high-school senior. She had already been accepted by an Ivy League school, where she shared her Intro to Psychology class with 1,800 other students. After her freshman year, she transferred to F&M.
Adams took an independent study with Eigen, worked with him on her senior thesis and contributed to one of his books as a research assistant. The two also co-authored a paper, which they presented to the American Society of Criminology.
"That experience was invaluable," Adams reports. When the time came for her to present her own papers in graduate school, she already knew what to expect. In 1995 she received an M.A. in sociology from Rutgers, where she taught courses as a teaching assistant.
"My research, my teaching style and my philosophy of higher education were shaped by Dr. Eigen," she says. "My direct experience as his student ruined me for any other type of learning format."
Eigen says he is fortunate that he can directly use his scholarship in the classroom. "What's exciting is that it allows me to introduce students to the methodology of doing research," he explains. "I can bring my materials into class, and they can see the actual case narratives. I can take them through the challenge of converting qualitative data into a quantitative display."
Receiving the Dewey Award was for Eigen "a form of recognition like no other," he says. "It carries the name of someone who not only inspired me but also illuminated a path for a career that's given me tremendous satisfaction."
Staking Out a Position
Annette Aronowicz, the Robert F. and Patricia G. Ross Weis Professor of Judaic Studies and professor of religious studies, was honored with the Dewey Award in 1999. She is best known for her translation of and commentary on French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Lvinas. More recently her research has centered on Jewish Communists living in Paris in the decades following World War II, examining how they drew from traditions of Eastern European Jews to rebuild their culture. In both areas of research she has engaged in rethinking the relationship between the secular and the religious.
Aronowicz does not directly teach her research in her classes, other than in independent studies. But that does not mean her scholarship does not inform and enhance her teaching.
The reason it's important for professors to engage in scholarship is that only by doing research can you deepen a point of view," she says. "When you're doing scholarship, you have to interpret. And it's never self-evident how to interpret. So you're forced to stake out a position.
"The main thing you offer your students as a teacher is a worked-out way of looking at the world. They need to know that there is such a thing, that it's not just bits of information they're being given, but a structured way of looking at that information."
The need to stake out a position resonates with Nathan McGovern '03, who worked with Aronowicz on an independent study of French poet Charles Pguy. McGovern spent an entire semester focused on Pguy's dramatic poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. "Professor Aronowicz was never impressed with or satisfied with you just because you performed well. She challenged you and treated you as an intellectual equal."
As a double major in physics and religious studies, McGovern originally planned on a career in the sciences. "In my senior year I decided to pursue religious studies," he says. "That was a difficult decision. But having been challenged by Professor Aronowicz really helped me to make that decision." He's now finishing a Ph.D. in Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Aronowicz believes ongoing research better equips her to guide students such as McGovern, because it means she is constantly learning as she teaches. "Research makes me more sensitive to the challenges students have in interpreting or coming up with a point of view," she says, "because I'm engaged in that effort myself."
That student-teacher interaction lies at the core of what Aronowicz believes higher education should be. "An institution like F&M has a lot of goals," she notes. "It has to keep itself running economically. It has many different activities, such as sports. So you might think that education is only one part of college life. But in fact education is the central and indispensable part. And the whole thing depends on the relationship between student and teacher. You can do away with almost everything else. But you cannot do away with the student and the teacher."
Although Aronowicz is an eloquent speaker, she turns almost shy when talking about winning the Dewey Award. "I can only express that I was very grateful," she says. "It was a very nice validation by my community. And it means one is held up to a standard."
A Researcher Runs Through It
Like other recipients of the Dewey Award, Dorothy Merritts is actively engaged in learning. But she is also engaged in unlearning, a process she says is just as important.
For the past several years Merritts has looked at how streams are affected by land-use change and climate change. She partners in that research with her husband, Associate Professor of Geosciences Bob Walter '75.
Streams in Lancaster County see a lot of erosion, and the resulting sediment affects the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. The prevailing view was that the erosion was caused by farming and urbanization. But Merritts showed otherwise.
From the time of European settlement in the early 18th century, the flow of local valleys was interrupted by hundreds of small dams. Behind those dams were millponds that amassed thousands of tons of sediment. Today, as the dams are breached, that sediment is carried downstream. The finding earned Walter and her a cover story in Science magazine in 2008.
Since then Merritts has continued unlearning. Her most recent discoveries are even more paradigm changing, because they show that the streams she has been studying originally were not even streams. Instead, they were marshy wetlands.
She knows this because the millponds covered the pre-settlement landscape and soil with 10 to 20 feet of water and silt. Beneath that Merritts is finding perfectly preserved landscapes with wetland plants and seeds, which she can identify, catalog and precisely date.
"These wetlands became streams because the valleys filled with sediment behind ubiquitous dams, and the water cut channels into that sediment once those dams breached," Merritts explains. "We thought we were seeing changes happening to streams. But what we were really seeing was changes happening to wetlands that had become streams."
In addition to changing minds in scientific communities, Merritts' research is enlivening her classes. "I take my students to these sites, and they work on class projects and thesis projects," Merritts says. "The students find this very exciting and vivid."
Students aren't the only ones captivated by such learning and unlearning. "I can say to my class, 'This morning I was at a site looking at something I've never seen before and never thought I'd see.' That sense of discovery—students appreciate it when professors are excited abouttheir research."
Laura Kratz '11 has spent several semesters researching an unexplained layer of millpond sediment. "Professor Merritts is wonderful at tailoring her courses to be field intensive, giving students a hands-on approach to geomorphology from the first day," she says. She reports that Merritts has inspired in her "a passion for field research" and plans to pursue a graduate degree in geomorphology.
Merritts' research even benefits students who are not in her classes. Katie Datin '11 has never taken a course with Merritts but has taken two with Walter. When she expressed interest in a particular research topic, Walter suggested she work with Merritts. Datin has since investigated pre-settlement sediment and seeds of the Holocene epoch, research she presented at the Lancaster Country Day School. "I have learned more than any single class could teach me," Datin says.
These scholarly endeavors are very much in the spirit of the College's Great Teaching, Great Learning theme marking this year. The theme highlights the work of F&M students and faculty and celebrates the College's core strengths in the liberal arts.
In fact, when you speak to recipients of the Dewey Award about what learning should be, you discover that regardless of their specific disciplines, they believe passionately in a liberal arts education. And they recognize that, for student and teacher alike, such learning continues for a lifetime.
Brad Dewey, Teacher-Scholar Model
Talk to anyone who knew Brad Dewey, and they will describe him with words such as "dedicated," "untiring," "influential," "inspiring." From his arrival at the College in 1964 until his death in 1989, he was a committed scholar and beloved teacher.
A professor of religious studies, Dewey joined the College after earning a Ph.D. at Yale University. Two years later he was honored with the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. He specialized in 19th-century European religious thought and the writings of Sren Kierkegaard, on whom he authored several academic papers and a book.
In addition to teaching, he served on numerous committees and as associate dean of academic affairs, dean of faculty affairs and dean of the College. As dean he worked to enhance the quality of intellectual life at F&M by encouraging the professional growth of faculty members through scholarly inquiry.
"When I came to the College, I had no conception of what it meant to be a college professor," says Joel Eigen, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology. "But I had the very good fortune to get to know Brad. His ideal was what he called the teacher-scholar model, and it allowed me to understand the connection between research and teaching."
In fact, Eigen says Dewey was "the most important influence in my career at F&M. He was the very best of mentors, and my first book is dedicated, in part, to his memory."
That sort of praise is expressed by seemingly everyone who worked with Dewey. "My regard for Brad couldn't be higher," says Joe Karlesky, Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government. "He was one of the best people I ever knew."
Karlesky recalls not only a high standard for teaching and scholarship but also an intuition that enabled Dewey to connect with students and colleagues alike. "His capacity to evaluate people and know what they needed from him was astounding," Karlesky says.
For all those who admired Dewey, many counted him and his wife, Marcia, as friends. In fact, no one seems to talk about Brad without also mentioning Marcia. Karlesky has spoken of "her graciousness, her loyalty and her kindness."
Marcia Dewey, for her part, is pleased to see the Dewey Award sustain her husband's legacy. "Brad felt that research and intellectual vitality should permeate a faculty, so that students could become the beneficiaries of that enthusiasm and motivation," she says. "To a person, the award has always been given to a very deserving faculty member. And as far as I can tell, it continues to reflect exactly what Brad had in mind."
As ardently as friends and family speak of Dewey, perhaps no one was as eloquent as Dewey himself when describing the goals of a liberal arts education: "Colleges within the liberal education tradition should do all they can to fosterthe structure and spirit that best enable students to develop as much ability as possible to tell wisdom from folly, right from wrong, truth from falsehood, justice from the appearance of justice, beauty from surface attraction."
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