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Ten named winners of Distinguished Teaching Awards

March 12, 2012 By

Photo: Parry Karp

Parry Karp, professor in the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, instructs a string quartet in his studio in the Mosse Humanities Building.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Ten University of Wisconsin faculty members have been chosen to receive Distinguished Teaching Awards.

The Distinguished Teaching Awards are bestowed by the Office of the Secretary of the Faculty, which will honor this year’s recipients on March 28 at a ceremony and reception hosted by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Register to attend here.

This year’s recipients are:

Photo: Nicholas Balster


Nicholas J. Balster, associate professor of soil science, Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Chancellor’s Award

Nicholas Balster said that, of all his roles, he holds his role as a teacher as most important.

“My philosophy focuses on constructing a learning environment that melds teaching and learning in an authentic form such that students and I are led by the wonderfully complex pursuit of understanding,” said Balster.

“I believe a teacher must provide a clear level of expectation within a learner-centered environment that provides every student with some measure of achievement. Teaching should be conducted in a manner where no one is belittled for their lack of understanding,” he added.

Balster joined the soil science faculty as an assistant professor in 2003, has been an associate professor since 2010 and chairs the new environmental science major.

“He has made extraordinary contributions to the teaching mission of our institution at nearly every level imaginable,” said William Bland, soil science chair.

Bland noted that Balster took a low-profile course, “Soils: Ecosystem and Resource,” and made it a premier contribution to environmental science learning. He said Balster’s students have had their view of the natural world transformed by the course.

Balster is credited with injecting vibrancy and new thinking into undergraduate courses. He has also worked to bring to campus undergraduate majors addressing the environment, resulting in both an environmental studies major, jointly offered by the Nelson Institute and the College of Letters and Science, and an environmental sciences major jointly offered by the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Letters and Science.

Balster served as co-chair of the UW Teaching Academy in 2010-11 and led the Teaching Academy Summer Institute in 2009.

John Swain, a former student of Balster’s and now an earth science teacher, said he found himself taking two sets of notes in Balster’s classes, one for the content and one set of mental notes on Balster’s approach to his craft as an educator.

“Dr. Balster has related to me that his favorite part of his job is watching the lights go on as a student discovers and learns,” Swain said.

Clayton Thomas, another of Balster’s students, describes him as “a shining example of what faculty advising and undergraduate instruction should look like.”

Photo: Jeffrey Beneker


Jeffrey Beneker, associate professor of classics, Kiekhofer Award

Jeffrey Beneker is described as a passionate teacher and an engaged citizen. He was hired as an assistant professor in 2006 and received tenure last March.

“What distinguishes him from many of his peers are a broad variety of courses he has taught in his short time at UW–Madison, his equal success in both small and large courses, his consistently high teaching evaluations, his commitment to study abroad, and his outreach work with high school teachers,” wrote Laura McClure, chair of the Department of Classics.

Beneker has reached a broad audience among Letters and Science students through his teaching of popular large lecture courses such as Classical Mythology, Ancient Religion, Medical Terms, and the Civilization of Ancient Rome.

Of his teaching philosophy, Beneker said, “My basic approach has always been to establish a rapport with my students that allows me both to lead them through the material they are learning and to engage them in a dialogue about the material.”

“I try to earn the students’ respect by insisting on an intellectual rigor and a pace of learning that keeps them challenged and busy, and the students have noticed this,” he said.

In the evaluation of his very first Latin class, one of his students wrote that he was “tough and good-natured.” Beneker said he has attempted to maintain that balance.

Beneker has been involved in the study abroad program, serving as resident director of his department’s three-week Athens Program in 2009 and 2011.

He has devoted many hours to support the study of classics and classical languages statewide and has been instrumental in helping revive teacher certification in Latin, which the state Department of Public Instruction recently approved.

“Professor Beneker shines in every one of the many roles that he plays,” said one of his students. “He is exceptionally approachable and makes himself readily available to help anyone with question or concerns.”

“Under his guidance, I have uncovered my own passion for classics and plan to pursue classics at the graduate level. I aspire to be a teacher of the caliber of professor Beneker.”

Photo: Roseanne Clark


Roseanne Clark, associate professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health, Van Hise Outreach Award

Roseanne Clark has taught a variety of courses since coming to UW–Madison in 1987 and made a strong impact through outreach.

Ned Kalin, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, points to Clark’s co-founding and development of the UW Infant, Early Childhood and Family Mental Health Certificate Program. It was the first such program in Wisconsin and was among a handful of them in the U.S.

“Dr. Clark’s research, service and advocacy revolve around the mental health needs of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens and their parents,” said Kalin.

“Her broad interests have one primary and common thread in that all are in response to the increasing number of at risk children, particularly in the past 20 years during a time when science, more than ever, has supported the critical windows of development for the young child’s brain,” Kalin said.

Clark has appreciated the chance to create learning opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students and to work with colleagues in the community on academic-community program development partnerships.

Her teaching and learning philosophy is first and foremost to start with where the learner is — “to be respectful and interested in what is going to be meaningful to them, where is their felt need to learn more, and what are they curious about? How can I engage and motivate that curiosity and wish to learn and discover?”

The certificate program exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea by using effective adult learning strategies to support the translation of evidence-based research into practice.

Clinical psychologist Kathleen Hipke wrote that Clark helped her become aware of the desperate need to increase Wisconsin’s capacity to affect the emotional well being and development of infants and children.

“She demonstrates qualities such as curiosity and respectful listening that she encourages her students and peers to practice their work with children and families,” Hipke said.

Clark said she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in learning and teaching.

“When I took a position at the University of Wisconsin, I felt thrilled and emboldened by being on the faculty of an institution of higher learning that uniquely values engaged learning, service and scholarship, academic/community research partnerships and outreach education, all endorsed and encouraged by the Wisconsin Idea.”

Photo: Robert Fillingame


Robert H. Fillingame, professor and chair, biomolecular chemistry, School of Medicine and Public Health, Chancellor’s Award

Students call him “Dr. Bob,” and look forward to his classroom serenades.

Christine Seibert, associate dean at the School of Medicine and Public Health, points to a unique aspect of  Robert Fillingame’s teaching for which he is well-known – mixing music and his biomolecular chemistry.

“His never-to-be-forgotten tune “Glucose, Glucose,” to the tune of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” ripe with biochemical lessons, is just one example of his unique ability to connect with students in an appealing way,” Seibert said.

Fillingame has taught at the university for 35 years. He was an assistant professor of physiological chemistry from 1975-1986, and an associate professor from 1980-86. He has taught biomolecular chemistry since 1986 and has been the department chair since 2002.

“Dr. Bob, as his students call him, has been the unparalleled leader in the transformation of all of our department’s service teaching courses, from offerings that have been perceived as “so-so” to very highly praised courses,” the late Paul Bertics, professor and vice chair of biomolecular chemistry, said in his nomination.

Bertics said that perhaps Fillingame’s most enduring impact has been the Biomolecular Chemistry 704 course required of first-year medical students.

“He has done a phenomenal job in what has proved to be a continual reorganization and enhancement of the course, and he has continually performed in an extraordinary fashion with respect to his own teaching,” wrote Bertics.

Fillingame’s research program is focuses on bioenergetics and he exudes enthusiasm in the classroom.

He has developed a variety of memorable demonstrations, stories and songs that help students understand and then remember many of the concepts and ideas that he is teaching.

Medical student Allison Aul wrote that she was impressed with how approachable Fillingame was and how he genuinely seemed to want to help students gain a thorough understanding of the material.

Professor Patricia Kiley wrote, “The emphasis Dr. Fillingame places on understanding the material provides students with the tools to be lifelong learners, enabling them to assimilate new information within the rapidly changing field of medical research.”

Seibert added that Fillingame has made a lasting impression on thousands of physician graduates and on his colleagues at the school.

Photo: Parry Karp


Parry Karp, professor of cello and chamber music and artist in residence, School of Music, Chancellor’s Award

School of Music director John Stevens said the quality of Parry Karp’s teaching stands out as stellar and special.

“In my own 40-year career as a professional musician and teacher I have never encountered a more dedicated teacher and mentor who combines his genuine love and caring for his students with a level of artistry that demonstrates to the students every day what it means to be a musician,” wrote Stevens in support of Karp’s award nomination.

Karp, cellist in the world-renowned Pro Arte Quartet and the director of the string chamber music program in the School of Music, has taught at the university for 34 years. He received his master of music degree from the university in 1977 and was promoted to full professor at the age of 37.

“As professors, we are the employees of the students,” said Karp. “In a way they are more important than we are. I try to stress that the most important teacher they will ever have is themselves, since they are running all of their practice sessions and need to be infinitely challenging and infinitely patient teachers of themselves.”

Every semester, Karp teaches string ensemble, advanced string ensemble, advanced cello and masters-level cello, along with several other courses.

Karp’s role is to coach chamber ensembles ranging from duets to sextets, including the most standard ensembles, such as string quartets, piano trios and piano quintets. The scheduling of those groups is said to be a daunting task that Karp embraces with gusto.

Karp’s colleagues Martha Fischer and Jessica Johnson say he serves as an inspiring role model for students and colleagues.

“He coaches like his life depends on it, not only addressing the many technical issues, but also considering the personalities involved and the ways in which they can blossom and grow in a collaborative context. When he discovers a new work, he’s like a kid in a candy shop and his enthusiasm is contagious,” they said.

Karp said inspiration is the biggest gift he received from almost all of his artist/teachers, the greatest inspiration being his father, pianist Howard Karp. He said he finds teaching to be an invigorating and wonderful experience, and he enjoys teaching students at all levels.

Photo: Cameron Macdonald


Cameron Macdonald, assistant professor of sociology, Emil H. Steiger Distinguished Teaching Award.

Cameron Macdonald wants her students to finish a semester with more questions than answers.

She wants them to have learned enough to know what they don’t know, to have their assumptions a bit rattled, to wrestle with big questions and take them home to their roommates and parents.

“And I want them to know where to go next to learn more,” she said. “I choose not to tell them what to think, but rather how to think.

Macdonald arrived at UW–Madison in 2004 and has repeatedly taught two important undergraduate courses – Marriage and the Family, which regularly attracts 200-300 students, and Health Care Issues for Individuals, Families and Societies. Both courses address basic issues in sociology and serve as gateways to the major. She also teaches Sociology of Medicine.

Macdonald is a faculty affiliate at the Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, Center for the Demography of Health and Aging, and Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars.

In addition to teaching her large lecture courses, she has been a rigorous, but supportive teacher and mentor for graduate students.

“Professor Macdonald’s teaching has been widely praised and students at every level have expressed appreciation for the time, effort and creativity she has put into her efforts,” wrote professor James Montgomery, chair of the Department of Sociology.

Graduate student Erin Fanning Madden noted Macdonald has been a key figure in re-establishing medical sociology courses and re-establishing the medical sociology prelim.

“For those students, like myself, who do medical sociology research, this was an extremely important development in the department,” Fanning said.

Macdonald wants her teaching to go far beyond the classroom.

“My students range from physicians and nurses to post docs and graduate students. I also have the pleasure of teaching Wisconsin residents when I give public lectures on health care to church groups or discuss policy reform on Wisconsin Public Radio” she said. “But my age group is and will be those ever-surprising almost-adults. Not a week goes by without a note from a former student, seeking advice or updating me on their lives. I am blessed.”

Photo: Gary Shiu


Gary Shiu, professor of physics, Chancellor’s Award

Tapping in to students’ burning desire to learn is a guiding force in Gary Shiu’s approach to teaching.

“Certainly an essential aspect of teaching is to transmit knowledge,” said Shiu, “But if I were to single out the most important role that teachers play, I would say unhesitatingly that it is their role to inspire.”

He added: “Teachers serve as a guiding light for students to aspire to, while students are mirrors for instructors to reflect and improve on their teaching.”

Shiu came to UW–Madison in 2002 as an assistant professor and has become an energizing force in his department and on campus.

Physics department chair Robert Joynt said Shiu has played a key role in innovating the physics curriculum, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and was instrumental in revamping his department’s introductory physics sequence, Physics 247-249.

“This course is innovative not only in the interactive teaching techniques he used, but also in the organization and content of the curriculum,” said Joynt.

Traditionally topics that excite students the most, such as quantum physics, relativity, black holes and cosmology, are taught at a later stage of undergraduate study. To stimulate students’ curiosity, Shiu introduced those concepts alongside traditional ones.

“Thanks to these innovative features and his phenomenal rapport with students, the number of physics majors has doubled since the inception of the course,” said Joynt.

Shiu is teaching big introductory physics classes in this academic year. His contributions to teaching go beyond the classroom. He is described as an inspiring and caring mentor who has supervised numerous undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral researchers.

Ho Ling Li, one of Shiu’s former students, described him as helpful, friendly, patient and willing to explain concepts repeatedly.

“He really knew how to give just enough hints or ideas to point me in the right direction so I would be able to find the answers myself,” said Li. “Gary succeeded in establishing a lively learning environment in the classroom.”

Shiu brought the field of string theory, an important branch in theoretical high- energy physics, to Madison. He was the first string theorist to join the department, contributing new ideas and enhancing the diversity of fields within the department.

Photo: Jake Vander Zanden

Vander Zanden

M. Jake Vander Zanden, professor, Center for Limnology and Department of Zoology, Chancellor’s Award

Jake Vander Zanden knows that engagement of students in the research process is a remarkable learning opportunity, affording them the chance to truly understand scientific exploration.

“There are two things that I hold as core to my teaching approach,” he said. “The first is to create opportunities for students to engage directly in the research process. The second is to expand the realm of teaching and learning beyond the classroom. Field trips are central to the learning experience in all of my classes.”

Vander Zanden, an international leader in the field of limnology and freshwater sciences, began his teaching career at UW–Madison in 2001.

“Jake’s track record of student mentoring is perhaps the most striking indication of his contributions to education,” said Jeff Hardin, zoology department chair. “Jake personifies the Wisconsin idea and is a model for the integration of teaching and research.”

In his years on campus, Vander Zanden has overseen 50 undergraduates in directed studies projects and many of his students have gone on to top graduate programs in freshwater sciences.

He teaches Limnology: Conservation of Aquatic Resources, and Ecology of Fishes.

Vander Zanden insists that students taking his Conservation of Aquatic Resources course get hands-on sampling on Lake Mendota – a testament to his commitment to field-based learning and instruction.

In 2009 his students made a remarkable discovery — that Lake Mendota had been invaded by a new and unexpected invasive species known as the spiny water flea.

Vander Zanden’s lecture style is energetic, personable and accessible. He is committed to actively engaging his students in the learning process despite the large lecture format of his classes.

A word that often appears in student evaluations of his teaching is “enthusiasm.”

One student wrote, “Your reputation as a great scientist is mirrored in your ability as a teacher.” Another noted that Vander Zanden obviously loves what he does. He was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Program Fellow last year.

Vander Zanden’s research is well integrated with his teaching and mentorship programs.

“As a result, some of the most significant papers from his lab are led by students,” wrote Hardin. “This generosity of lead-authorship is a hallmark of his program.”

Photo: Lee Palmer Wandel


Lee Palmer Wandel, professor of history, religious studies, and visual culture, Chancellor’s Award

“This is a historian who takes seriously the idea that scholarship and teaching are siblings, not distant relations,” professor Rudy Koshar said about his colleague,  Lee Wandel.

Wandel has taught at UW–Madison for 14 years. Among the variety of courses she has taught are: Utopia: Fiction and History; Western Christianity; Witches and Saints; Genres in Western Religious Writing; and Modern Europe, 1500-1815.

History department chair Florencia Mallon describes Wandel as an outstanding and internationally renowned scholar.

“Her care for and connection with students is very real,” noted Mallon. “Students in both her large lectures and small seminars emphasize the thought-provoking and invigorating impact of her deep interest in them as individuals, thinkers and researchers.”

“What makes Lee’s teaching so exceptional is her passionate commitment to students, curiosity, and to a moral life – all of which she sees as inextricably connected,” added Mallon.

Wandel said of her approach: “My classroom is a safe place. TAs and I affirm over the course of the semester that no question is stupid. Students raise their hands throughout lectures – a simple measure of student engagement. My lectures tend to center on puzzles, a piece of evidence, a why?

Wandel inspires students to question and provides them with opportunities and methods to investigate the issues that matter most to them.

“More than any other academic I know, professor Wandel lives her subject,” wrote Brendan Jones O’Connor, one of her students. “Religion really matters, this history matters, and people actually matter.”

Professor Rudy Koshar said that Wandel’s classroom is “a place for students to experience wonder.”

“I learned something about teaching, after 31 years in higher education, from visiting her class,” Koshar said.

Wandel invites her students to think through history for themselves and, in doing so, to think through their own moral values and ideals.

One of her former students wrote, “Often, when lecture had finished, rather than bursting out of the lecture hall in a hurried mass of chattering students, we seemed to file out slowly, each lost in thought, still hearing echoes of her words in our heads.”

Wandel regularly teaches lectures at 8 a.m. and the seats are filled with engaged and interested students who don’t mind being there at that early hour.

Photo: John Zumbrunnen


John Zumbrunnen, associate professor of political science, Chancellor’s Award

John Zumbrunnen said the most basic tool for achieving the goal of critical thinking is enthusiasm on the part of the instructor.

“Simply put, the instructor must offer a model of engagement with the material and excitement with learning,” he said. “Along with enthusiasm, flexibility is crucial to successful teaching. Different techniques work in different settings and with different groups of students. In general, I favor active learning approaches.”

John Coleman, chair of the Department of Political Science, said Zumbrunnen succeeds in inspiring critical thinking.

“Professor Zumbrunnen is a master at getting students immersed and engaged in material dating back hundreds and thousands of years, making them see the connections between that material and the world around them today,” wrote Coleman.

Zumbrunnen joined the department in 2008, and Coleman said he has continued its legacy of outstanding instruction.

“He continues that tradition, teaching a range of political theory courses that span millennia of political thought, from the classics of ancient political theory to a revival of courses on the History of American Political Thought and Contemporary American Political Thought,” Coleman said.

He has created innovative programs that demonstrate the relevance of political theory to a broad audience, including undergraduates, high school teachers and post-doctoral scholars.

Zumbrunnen is described as a highly energetic, engaging lecturer who uses a combination of humor, personal stories and modern examples to show the connection between historic texts and contemporary debates.

After observing one of his lectures, colleague Katherine Cramer-Walsh noted:

“The course began with him playing a recording of the Beatles’ ‘Revolution,’ timed perfectly to end just as the start-of-class bell rang. From there on, the class was a 50-minute performance about Marx’s historical materialism. I was riveted and the students appeared to be so as well.”

Teaching assistant Rebecca LeMoine wrote, “John is a skilled teacher whose passion about the material is infectious and who challenges his students in a congenial way, fostering a friendly, yet investigative learning environment.”

Student Jake Gudmundsen said Zumbrunnen goes beyond teaching a subject.

“He provides them with the tools to take learning upon themselves, to actively be a part of their own education, to succeed in more than academia,” Gudmundsen said.