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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

From students to professors; Profiling the winners of 2009 teaching awards

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: Features

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Peter Kalb4, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art on the Cynthia L. and Theodore S. Berenson chair, is the 27th recipient of the Michael L. Walzer ’56 Award for Teaching.

This award is handed out to a tenure track faculty member who “combines superlative scholarship with inspired teaching.”

Kalb received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College before receiving Ph.D. from The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. He began teaching at Brandeis in the fall of 2006 after teaching at Ursinus, Middlebury, Hunter and St. Francis Colleges, and the New School and Pratt Institute.

Kalb is a member of the Committee for the Support of Teaching, and is a senior thesis and departmental adviser. He’s also a contributor to Art in America and a consulting editor for Janson’s History of Art.

Art at the Turn of the Millennium, Kalb’s latest book, will be released soon.

Chrissy Callahan: Congratulations! What does this award mean to you and how does it feel to be recognized?

Peter Kalb: It’s been very nice; it’s been very flattering to hear. It’s students who nominate you and when they told me [I won], [Adam Jaffe] also read off some of the statements that some of the nominating students made and also some statements from the course evaluations, so those are familiar. But it’s great to hear that people actually like taking your classes.”

CC: This award “combines superlative scholarship with inspired teaching.” How does it feel to be recognized not only as a good professor but also as a friend and mentor to students?

PK: Again, it’s flattering [because] I think of the courses as not just ending in the classroom, so it’s definitely nice to have. We spend a lot of work to make you feel like you’re comfortable and it’s a learning environment and that you know these classes can be an opportunity for you all to be creative, so if that’s carried out, which it seems like it is, that’s great.

CC: In their nomination of you, a lot of students mentioned your tough grading practices. One said, “He’s a tough grader but honestly I got so much out of his class that grades became secondary.” Is this something that you strive to teach your students in the classroom as a part of your role as mentor?

PK: Yeah, obviously that’s a pretty exciting comment to get; you don’t get that many of those. But I mean it’s art, the grading process really should be beside the point. Obviously it’s also college so it’s not beside the point. But yeah it’s great if people are getting your material because it means something and because they’ve gotten something out of it or are making something with it that is apart from the grades.

CC: So you have a book coming out soon. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

PK: It’s a history of contemporary art. It covers material from the 1970s to the present and charts the [history of] contemporary art having a lot of focuses particularly in New York but also in London and then becoming increasingly global and international in the last 15-20 years. It’ll be a textbook…it covers a lot of artists; it’s not a specialized project.

CC: Is there one life lesson you strive to teach your students?

PK: I don’t know if there’s one. I guess one of the things that I would hope comes out of these classes is that art and culture is theirs and that if they go to a museum that they will consider themselves a part of the intellectual traditions and the artistic traditions that we’re talking about in class. I mean you don’t remember that much from a class. I stayed in school and kept teaching, and still I look back on college and I don’t remember details from my classes. But I do remember having the feeling that this was something that was mine, that I could engage with outside of those classroom experiences… That’s what it’s about. It’s about students taking this and doing whatever they want with it.

Student Praise

“I have left his classes feeling more confident as a student and as an individual. He is endlessly patient and always willing to help us improve. His office door is always open.”

“I have never seen a professor so effectively (make) a 60-person lecture class feel like an intimate seminar.”

“He is continuously cited by art history majors, minors, and other students as one of the most knowledgeable and most engaging professors at Brandeis. No matter how much knowledge you bring to one of Professor Kalb’s classes, he pushes you to learn more and to think differently, and is incredibly invested in students’ individual growth.”

David Rakowski, the Walter N. Naumburg professor of composition, is the 2009 recipient of the Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer ‘69 and Joseph Neubauer Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring. The award is given to the faculty member who is not just “an exceptional teacher, but also one who has had a significant impact on students’ lives as a mentor, advisor, and friend.

Rakowski earned his bachelor’s degree at the New England Conservatory and his MFA and Ph.D. from Princeton University. Before joining the faculty at Brandeis in 1995, he taught at Columbia and Stanford Universities.

Rakowski chaired the music department at Brandeis from 2004-2005 and currently serves as the undergraduate advising head for the music composition track as well as advisor to many minors and senior theses candidates.

Rakowski has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music twice and among numerous other awards has received the Rome Prize, the Barlow Prize, and awards from the American Academy of Art and letters.

Chrissy Callahan: Congratulations! First off, what does winning this award mean to you?

David Rakowski: I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t competing for it so one, it means it’s a big surprise and number two, I guess it means that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

CC: This award is given to the professor who is both an exceptional teacher as well as one who has had a significant impact on students’ lives as a mentor. What does it mean to you to be recognized as not only a good professor, but also a friend or mentor?

DR: Well I’m glad someone is noticing. I think we should all be doing that and in fact I think we all do do that, on the faculty.

CC: In their nomination of you, one student wrote “Professor Rakowski is the king of awesomeness. He makes everything about theory exciting and fun.” How important is it to you to make your subject area fun for students?

DR: When I took theory in college it was really boring so I didn’t think it should be boring for anyone else. Our students have to take theory and it can be a boring subject if taught the way it was taught to me. One fun thing about teaching is making what used to be a boring subject interesting or at least interesting to students who are required to take it if they’re music majors.

CC: So how do you try to make the class fun for students?

DR: When they have to do counterpoint exercises which can be really dull, I have competitions…and the student who has the best exercise as voted by other students gets a really dumb prize. One student got a bag of fake flies, some of the students got candy, things like that. Or other things like finding things that I hear on the radio that have something to do with what I might be talking about in a music theory class.

CC: You’ve taught at Brandeis since 1995. How do the students at Brandeis and the personal interactions you’ve had with them on such a small campus compare to the other schools you’ve taught at before?

DR: Well there’s certainly a lot more attention for undergraduates at Brandeis than at the other two schools I’ve taught at. I think that the undergraduate teaching mission is a lot more specifically put to you when you’re hired [at Brandeis] than it was at Columbia and Stanford, where I taught. And I think the students have a wider range of interests at Brandeis. They were pretty concentrated in music [at Stanford and Columbia] but at Brandeis all the students in my classes seem to be doing everything, especially theater. I didn’t have students at Stanford and Columbia that were interested in theater at all.

CC: Several students also mentioned your accessibility outside of the classroom. How important is it to you to be available to students outside of class?

DR: They certainly know how to get in touch with me and often on my syllabi I give them my home phone and they can call me at home if they need to. That doesn’t happen very often, thankfully. But they also know that if I’m in the building and I’m between classes and don’t have anything to do otherwise, they can just ask me for help on whatever they’re doing musically, or advice on whatever they’re thinking about doing career-wise.

Student Praise

“Professor Rakowski is the king of awesomeness. He makes everything about theory exciting and fun.”

“His classes are the highlight of my week. It is clear that his students always come first, and that he is a teacher because he really wants us to understand and love music as much as he does.”

Bruce Foxman, professor of chemistry, is the 23rd recipient of the Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Foxman began teaching at Brandeis in 1972 as an Assistant Professor after receiving his Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University and his Ph.D. from MIT. Before coming to Brandeis, Foxman studied as a postdoctorate at the Australian National University.

To date, many of Foxman’s articles have appeared in the journals of American Chemical Society, Organometallics and Inorganic Chemistry. He heads a research group on solid state chemistry and teaches Honors General Chemistry, Advanced Inorganic Chemistry and X-Ray Structure Determination.

Foxman now serves as the Undergraduate Advising Head and Senior Research/Honors Coordinator for the chemistry department.

Chrissy Callahan: Congratulations! What does this award mean to you and how does it feel to be recognized?

Bruce Foxman: It’s wonderful because the students are why we are here. It’s one of the few things that makes me get up in the morning and want to come in here. The undergrads in particular, they’re just a wonderful group…I’ve always enjoyed teaching and I actually do a lot of research work as well. I enjoy the teaching and I think that either one without the other leaves a vacuum in my mind. So I get to polish my understanding of science by going in the research lab whenever I get a chance but I get back to the real world by teaching.

CC: In their nomination of you, a lot of students mentioned your accessibility outside of the classroom. How important is it to you to be more than just a teacher; to be a mentor?

BF: I think that’s one of the most important things; we should all be doing that. You may have noticed my door is open and if you look on the way out, I broke the closer so that it doesn’t close. If I want to close it I can, but most of the time if it’s closed, I’m not here. So students will wander in and the worst thing I can say to them ‘Oh I I’ve got this thing that’s due this afternoon. Can you come back at two instead of seeing me now?” But I want them to be able to come in, and the worst case scenario is I am a little busy right now, but I can tell them that as opposed to shutting the door.

Mentoring is really the second part of your question. Really again, [it’s] a very fun thing that a professor can do and particularly if one has children, you had some practice on messing that up with your own kids and my view of things is that having children has really helped me be a better mentor for students that come by… If a student comes by and asks a question, I always like to find out a little bit more about them…it helps me understand what their needs are likely to be and where I can help….It’s good to get to know the students who are in your class and who you’re advising.

CC: Would you say you’ve been able to apply your experience as Undergraduate Advising Head of chemistry towards your interaction with students in the classroom?

BF: Certainly, because you learn a lot more as an advisor about students if you’re willing to take the time [to do so]. And having a lot of advisees doesn’t preclude [the occurrence of] a new question, but when a certain amount of time has passed, you’ve heard a lot of the questions. They’re still interesting but I like it because ….I get a chance to apply the experience I gained by tackling some tricky problems and solving things smoothly for students as opposed to saying “I’ll get back to you in two weeks,” which I had to do at the beginning. And I don’t want to ever be in that situation because I think students appreciate having their problems dealt with punctually. I usually try to answer my emails quickly…you have to answer it sometime, why not now?

CC: Another thing a lot of students mentioned in their nomination of you was the fun aspect of your classes. For many students, science is a challenge. How do you strike a balance between taking this complicated material and making it fun for students?

BF: I think of lots of jokes. Particularly I always think of the tension breaking jokes. This semester I’m teaching an advanced lab chemistry course….One of the topics is called magnetism and I find that somewhere in the middle of that I’ve got to have a joke because everyone’s getting confused…The joke is [often] part of the lecture; it’s got a message in it. Some of the jokes are just nonsense. They don’t have anything to do with anything. You know, I add up a column of numbers and I say “ah that comes to zero: my raise!” So then my raise is a euphemism for zero for the rest of the semester…It’s just a matter of if students have fun they learn more, and I have more fun when the students are having fun.”

CC: You’ve taught at Brandeis since 1972. What is it about Brandeis students that impresses you so much and has made you stay so long?

BF: They are of incredible quality. At this point in my career, about two or three years ago I stopped taking PhD. students when I turned 65…What I started to do at that point is work even more closely with undergrads in the research lab, and they are incredibly good. I just can’t say too many good things about them. And again, that enhances one’s experience in the lecture hall too… An A student on an exam, you don’t know how good that student is in a research environment and the answer is, they’re [pretty] good! If I had to go back and [delete one student from my lab] I’d say please don’t do that, they were all good. There isn’t one I’d like to get rid of.”

CC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BF: I think everyone likes to think [they]’re doing a good job teaching. What I particularly like about the award is that it comes from students; it’s not decided by administrators…Without student input the award doesn’t exist because there’s no basis to give it. It’s gratifying to have had enough positive student feedback.

Student Praise

“It has been an honor to have Professor Foxman as my advisor. In an ideal world, every student would have a mentor who was as patient, inspiring, and dedicated as he is. Professor Foxman is truly an asset to the university, and Brandeis should recognize his exceptional skill as a professor and advisor.”

“Professor Foxman shows his commitment to students first and foremost by dedicating vast amounts of time to us. By treating us as intelligent scientists-in-training who are capable of handling complicated research questions, he inspires confidence in his students. In my personal experience, it was only after I noticed Professor Foxman’s belief in me that I began to trust in my own scientific abilities.”