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Commencement 2005

Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- Four Princeton faculty members received President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies May 31.

They are: João Biehl, assistant professor of anthropology; Robert Cava, professor of chemistry and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials; Beatriz Colomina, professor of architecture; and Michael Wood, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and professor of comparative literature.

The awards were established in 1991 through gifts by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen ’50 and John Sherrerd ’52 to recognize excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching by Princeton faculty members. Each winner receives a cash prize of $5,000, and his or her department receives $3,000 for the purchase of new books.

A committee of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students and academic administrators selected the winners from nominations by current students, faculty colleagues and alumni.

Biehl, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2001, teaches courses in medical anthropology, the social studies of science and technology, globalization and development, and social theory. His advisees have included the 2004 and 2005 winners of the Pyne Prize, the University’s top award for undergraduates.

Many current and former undergraduate and graduate students praised his teaching style in their letters supporting his nomination for the award — one called him a “virtuoso of teaching.” They cited his contagious enthusiasm and his open and dynamic approach as well as his commitment to humanity.

“Both in the classroom and in his office hours advising sessions, Professor Biehl approaches students as peers — intellectual colleagues who are there to think seriously together and help one another push the limits of observation and analysis,” wrote one recent graduate. “It was through this unwavering ethical stance toward a nonhierarchical teacher/student relationship that made studying with Professor Biehl such an invigorating and challenging experience. By deeply valuing the thoughts of University undergraduates, Professor Biehl enabled students like myself to go further with our ideas, take intellectual risks and make connections between concepts and fields of inquiry.”

Several of those writing letters noted his innovative ways of connecting classroom work with real-world experience. For his “Medical Anthropology” course, Biehl has made a project through the University’s Community-Based Learning Initiative an option for the final paper. He also has brought to campus several renowned experts in medical anthropology to talk about their work.

“I can imagine his future at Princeton only in the most enthusiastic and confident terms,” wrote one colleague. “João is one of those truly rare teachers whose range of engagements makes the ordinary application of the term ‘gifted’ seem superficial.”

Cava, who came to Princeton in 1996, currently is serving as chair of the chemistry department. He teaches freshman chemistry as well as graduate courses in solid-state chemistry and materials science.

Cava began his career in industry as a technical staff member at Bell Labs for 17 years. A leading scientist in the field of materials science, he was selected this year to receive the National Academy of Sciences’ John Carty Award, given annually for distinguished accomplishment.

“... the greatest part of being part of the Cava lab is the ability to interact with someone with such a rich and successful research career and still feel like they are genuinely interested in your growth and development as a person and scientist, and not merely concerned with the results of your experiments,” wrote one graduate student in her letter supporting his nomination.

Other students specifically mentioned Cava’s passion for teaching, his entertaining lectures and his tireless work with students outside the classroom. “From [using] homemade pollen-fueled flamethrowers to minting his own silver coin to [setting off] highly exothermic sodium reactions, Professor Cava makes lectures something you cannot miss,” wrote one student. “But most importantly, he makes every effort to begin lectures at a level everyone can understand. By beginning with basics, Professor Cava builds up effectively to more challenging concepts, allowing students to quickly grasp ideas and come away remembering the take-home message.”

Colomina, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1988, teaches courses in the history and theory of architecture, architecture and the visual arts, and analysis and theory of modern architecture. She is founding director of the Program in Media and Modernity, a graduate offering that promotes the interdisciplinary study of forms of culture that came to prominence during the last century and looks at the interplay between culture and technology.

Colomina’s nomination for the teaching award was initiated by graduate students in the School of Architecture. She has served since 2000 as director of the Ph.D. program, and is credited with energizing the program with her approach of engaging students in a collective research theme that changes each year. Students in these themed seminars have worked closely with Colomina to edit a book published by Princeton Architectural Press and to organize an international conference and an exhibition.

“Even as she continues to distinguish herself as a path-breaking scholar of international repute, Professor Colomina has tirelessly and effectively worked on behalf of her students to advance their own work,” wrote one student. “In doing so, she has helped redefine the field of architectural history and theory as it is taught in schools of architecture worldwide.”

Colomina is recognized for her ability to draw out the best in her students. “She consistently guides these students toward topics and problems that are likely to make a real difference to the discipline when the work is published,” wrote one colleague. “And, in the course of the work on these dissertations, she insists on the highest scholarly and intellectual standards for their work. It is thus hardly a surprise that the Ph.D. program in architecture continues to place students in the most important and visible positions in the profession, or that their dissertations appear with such frequency as compelling first books.”

Wood, a Princeton faculty member since 1995, leads courses in 20th-century literature, film, literary theory and history of criticism. Several students and colleagues commented on how the qualities that have made Wood a widely published author and critic also have made him an outstanding teacher.

“A marvelously thoughtful and wide-ranging scholar, he is one of those rare academics whose writing and teaching invigorate each other,” wrote one former student. “In his scholarship and literary journalism, he provides an essential voice in the ongoing dialogue of contemporary thought. And in the classroom, he makes students feel they’re part of that broader world of ideas.”

Others praised his work outside the classroom in mentoring students. One former graduate student called him an “eagle-reader,” combining “the aerial views that enable his historical and international perspective with the high-speed swoops that allow him to seize upon a turn of phrase, a particular metaphor or the subtlest shift in diction.”

“As an adviser,” she added, “he has consistently helped students find their own intellectual passions, and has worked actively to create spaces in which they can pursue them.”

Faculty members honored with President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching were, from left: João Biehl, Robert Cava, Beatriz Colomina and Michael Wood.