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Zimmerman wins UW System teaching award

November 8, 2010

David Zimmerman, a UW–Madison English professor, is among four recipients of the UW System’s 2010 Alliant Energy Underkofler Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

“I’m humbled,” says Zimmerman. “It means a lot to Wisconsin faculty to have their success in the classroom honored. For many of us, this is the most important aspect of our mission as professors, and I’m grateful to be in a department that values teaching — where a commitment to student learning and to excellence in the classroom is so highly respected.”   

Having taught over 35 introductory literature lecture courses, advanced American Literature classes, and honors and graduate seminars since arriving in Madison in 2000, Zimmerman has been known for his classroom skills.

In nominating him for the award, the English department praised him as a “model teacher,” citing his innovative methods and dedication to his students, his recognition as a gifted discussion leader, his leadership as a writing instructor, and his excitement in the classroom.

“Professor Zimmerman’s great talent lies in teaching students to love reading and thinking about literature,” noted Caroline Willis, one of his former teaching assistants. “Again and again, I have had students tell me that they had no idea reading literature could be so exciting. One senior even told me that if he had known earlier that this was what reading literature was all about, he would have majored in English.”  

One first-year student said, “After his very first lecture, one on Edgar Allan Poe, I confess I was overtaken by the desire to stand up and applaud—perhaps even to cheer.  I probably would have if I weren’t extremely afraid of being labeled a ‘freak’ on the very first day of college.”

Zimmerman credits his classroom success not only to his enthusiasm for teaching but also to his rigorous standards.

“I make students, especially my upper-level students, work extremely hard,” he says, “but I also work closely with them to help them meet my high expectations.” Students frequently line up 10 deep outside his office to discuss their essay drafts, and he often spends six to eight hours a week meeting with students to help them improve their writing.”

Learning involves more than hard work in Zimmerman’s classes — it also includes having fun. Zimmerman’s innovative teaching methods include bringing his electric guitar to lecture and performing songs he’s composed about the books he teaches.

The Underkofler awards are given by the Alliant Energy Foundation as a tribute to the energy company’s long-time senior executive, James R. Underkofler, a staunch proponent of excellence in undergraduate teaching.