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Terrific Teachers

Terrific Teachers
Don't leave the U without a class from at least one of these exceptional professors.

by Kelley J. P. Lindberg

The U is stocked with an abundance of excellent teachers. Among those are a goodly number of great ones—men and women known for really firing up the imaginations of their students.

The five professors highlighted here are only a few among the many. They represent a variety of disciplines, and each has earned one of the University’s top teaching honors—either the Distinguished Teaching Award or the Presidential Teaching Scholar Award. All of them regularly teach at least one class available to all students, regardless of major. These five names are among those that should appear at least once on every student’s class schedule to round out his or her academic career.

David Temme

David Temme MS’85
Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Biology
Distinguished Teaching Award, 2004

In the academic world of science, where specialization is the norm and experts spend their lives researching deeper and deeper into smaller and smaller areas of inquiry, David Temme claims he’s “kind of a failure.” Perhaps that’s what makes him an award-winning teacher.

Temme didn’t follow the typical path to college professor. Instead, it took a wildlife biology degree from Kansas, a stint as a naturalist on Cape Cod, a master’s degree in biology from the U of U (which he interrupted pursuing for awhile to work on a farm in Vermont), and finally a “what-the-heck” job teaching for the U’s Continuing Education program at the Utah State Prison before he finally realized that teaching provided a forum to explore what intrigued him the most about life.

“What I was interested in was trying to bring all of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, together under one conceptual roof,” explains Temme. “Everyone was taking it apart. I wanted to put it back together.”

The amount of existing information about biology is nearly unfathomable. No single person can know everything that has already been discovered, and more is being discovered every day. Yet offering a broad survey of the biological landscape is a common method used in introducing biology in the classroom.

In contrast, as in the old fishing proverb, Temme feels it’s more valuable to teach students how to think about biology rather than to simply give them a list of facts they’ll memorize, regurgitate, and probably forget. “There may be fewer than 10 ideas in all of biology; you just have to know how to put them all together. Instead of everything being a special case, you give students the intellectual framework to think about any aspect of biology.”

Temme knows his approach is different but says most students “know when you’re really interested in helping them get where they want to go. I want them to believe that they can actually understand what they couldn’t understand before. It’s not about getting the grade. It’s about getting better.”

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George Cassiday

George Cassiday
Professor of Physics
Distinguished Teaching Award, 2002

George Cassiday grew up watching “Mr. Wizard” on television. The entertaining scientist (whose real name was Don Herbert) would amaze, delight, and enlighten young viewers with demonstrations that revealed the science behind our everyday world. The hands-on, visual approach left an indelible imprint on Cassiday that would one day influence his research and teaching methods at the University of Utah.

In the late 1960s, Cassiday spent four years with U of U physicist Jack Keuffel 2,000 feet underground in a Park City mine, working with the ultimate Tinker Toy—a neutrino detector. Later, he developed the University’s Fly’s Eye, a many-faceted array of instruments designed to look for high-energy cosmic rays.

When he reached his 50s, Cassiday realized that while he enjoyed research, the Mr. Wizard in him was ready to devote more time to his other passion, teaching. Now he helps 200 students every semester unravel the tangled mysteries of astronomy.

While mathematics is the universal language of science, Cassiday knows that not everyone is comfortable speaking about science in a symbolic way—especially since he finds that his classes “Does ET Exist?” and “The Solar System” are popular with science majors and non-science majors alike. “Visualization and construction of models gets you a long way in science,” he says. “I utilize a large number of visual aids in my lectures, and the subjects I teach lend themselves to that.”

For his students, Cassiday hopes he has “engendered a thirst to learn more about the world in which they live, and showed them that science won’t be something that’s useless or dull or uninteresting.” Like Mr. Wizard did for millions of kids in previous generations, Cassiday still makes complex science simply fun.

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Sandra Shotwell

Sandra Shotwell
Professor of Theatre
Distinguished Teaching Award, 2004

When Sandra Shotwell graduated from college, she had no intention of teaching. She was already working in professional theater when the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco asked her to teach in the program that she herself had gone through. For two years, she toured, performed as a member of the company, and taught.

Somewhere along the line, she says, “I just realized that what I wanted from acting, I was getting from teaching: constant pleasure from watching people grow, constant delight in seeing the work of my students, interpersonal relationships on a daily basis, plus an aliveness that was a different kind of aliveness than I felt when I was acting—just interacting with people.”

Now she teaches speech, voice, and acting in the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program, as well as acting classes during the summer for non-theater majors.

“Working primarily with an undergraduate group keeps you young and on your toes,” she says, making it sound as if it were really that easy. But while some teachers seem unable to adapt to the changing characteristics of each new generation of students, Shotwell embraces them. “I have to recognize what’s coming out of the personality of a particular half-decade of students and learn to address that,” she says. “I try to make people aware of what’s specific to them or to their generation.”

One of the primary reasons for Shotwell’s success is her ability to reach students on an individual basis. “In the performing arts, it’s more important to have one-on-one time with each student,” she says, “to follow them along, monitor each student, and be there to support them, helping them go farther.”

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Russell Isabella

Russell Isabella
Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Studies
Distinguished Teaching Award, 2003

The trick to teaching human development is to make it relevant to students’ lives. “You may think that’s easy because the class is about human development and the students are humans,” says Russ Isabella, “but it really needs to be spelled out.”

The knowledge that every individual has unique life experiences and expectations makes it a challenge, and the fact that every year Isabella teaches classes on human development to nearly 300 of those individuals in the classroom and another 300 online should make it downright daunting. But not to Isabella.

After nearly two decades at the University of Utah, he still finds that one of the best ways to relate to students is through stories. Whether telling anecdotes from his own life, showing movies that capture the drama of human experience, or just drawing students into a discussion with questions about themselves, Isabella relies on stories from real life to illustrate concepts about infancy, childhood, adolescence, parenting, and aging. Often those concepts bring out the differences in students’ personal histories, and exploring those differences brings new insights.

“The population [at the U] is unique because so many students are married at a fairly young age, so many have children, and so many are working part or full time. It’s very different from the more classic undergraduate population,” he says. Because his students, despite their youth, are dealing with so many stages of human development already, he hopes to impart “an understanding of the importance of what they’re learning and its relevance to their lives…. As often as possible, I try to intersect what I’m teaching with my students’ lives.”

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Calvin Boardman

Calvin Boardman
Kendall D. Garff Professor of Finance
Presidential Teaching Scholar Award, 1996

Imagine you’re in class, studying the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, novelists, economists, religious and business leaders, and scientists. Imagine you’re watching films and engaging in role play, debate, and poetry readings. Imagine the teacher is sitting on the edge of his desk, encouraging you to explain how you feel about the material.

History? Philosophy? Sociology? Not. In actuality, the teacher is a professor of finance, and you’re taking a business course.

Thanks to Cal Boardman, you and 20,000 other past and present University of Utah students have been given a powerful framework for thinking about commerce as a natural part of the human experience.

For 12 years, Boardman’s “Foundations for Business Thought” course has addressed what he calls “the human and social nature of human existence in the course of commercial activity.” His groundbreaking use of a wide range of sources to explore all the human elements that form and inform the business enterprise is even being adopted by other universities around the country.

Open discussion is a crucial part of his class. “I want students to share how they feel about particular concepts and controversies that we raise in class. I want them to engage not just intellectually, but also emotionally,” he says.

“I hope students who take this class walk away with the understanding that business is a reflection of the values of the people who own the business, manage the business, work for the business, sell to the business, buy from the business, and regulate the business,” he says. “A business enterprise is as natural and timeless as any other human endeavor, because the commercial enterprise transcends centuries, cultures, ‘-isms,’ and any other characteristic that might define who we are.” Boardman says the bottom line is, “To truly understand the world of business, students have to understand people and what makes them tick.”

—Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a Layton-based freelance writer.

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J.D. Williams

J.D. WILLIAMS, 1926–2007

Some teachers do much more than impart knowledge. They become friends and mentors, and serve as shining examples of what a university professor can be. J.D. Williams, who died on September 3, 2007, was just such a teacher.

In an era when Americans are disillusioned with politics, when the very word “politics” has taken on unpleasant, derisive connotations, Williams unfailingly stood for what was positive about it. As founding director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, revered professor, and personal mentor to hundreds of political science students over his 40-year career at the University of Utah, Williams had a profound influence on the landscape of politics that stretches far beyond campus boundaries.

“His love of politics went to his core,” says Kirk Jowers BS’92, current director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. His passion and knowledge about politics and policies were infectious and reached across the political spectrum. “When he spoke, you didn’t just hear J.D.’s message, you really felt it. It resonated even if you disagreed with him,” says Jowers. “He was able to get people from the far left and far right and everyone in between to engage in, love, and participate in politics.”

Williams’ famous speech “The Miracle of Philadelphia,” which he presented more than 30 times, encapsulated his belief that the American system of government excels—provided Americans willingly participate. In the speech, after dramatically retelling the story of the drafting of the Constitution, Williams said, “That they produced a Constitution against historic odds, that they invented federalism in a confederate society, that they used power to check abuses in power and wrote a true Constitution designed for ages to come; that, frankly, was miraculous to me.”

That Williams could, and did, transfer his hope for the positive power of politics to thousands of current and future leaders across our nation is miraculous in itself. —KL

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