Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching
Posted June 1, 2010; 01:08 p.m.
Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, June 1.
They are: Erhan Çinlar, the Norman J. Sollenberger Professor in Engineering and professor of operations research and financial engineering; Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, the Emory L. Ford Professor of Spanish; P. Adams Sitney, professor of visual arts in the Lewis Center for the Arts; and Jeffrey Stout, professor of religion.
The awards were established in 1991 through gifts by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen of the class of 1950 and John Sherrerd of the class of 1952 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.
Çinlar, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1985, is an associated faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and the Program in Applied Mathematics. He has been selected by students and colleagues in the School of Engineering and Applied Science for several awards honoring excellence in teaching. His undergraduate course "Probability and Stochastic Systems" is known as one of the most challenging classes at the University and a rite of passage for students in his department and throughout the engineering school. The course, which also is popular among students concentrating in other sciences and the humanities, explores the mathematical description of uncertainty and how to think about randomness. Çinlar is renowned for telling students in the first lecture, "This class will not make you more intelligent, but will make you feel more intelligent," according to one colleague who nominated him for the teaching award.
Students are drawn to the course by Çinlar's reputation as a masterful, dedicated teacher. One colleague wrote, "Many of these students take the course not because they have to, but for the deep intellectual challenge it presents." Students lauded Çinlar's skill in explaining the real-world relevance of the dense theories covered in the course, as he offers insights on topics ranging from the current financial crisis and wealth inequality to the supply of kidney transplants. "The essence of Erhan's genius as a teacher is his capacity for incorporating mathematical abstraction into how he sees everyday life," wrote a former student who worked with Çinlar at the undergraduate and graduate levels. "This is not to say he trivializes or oversimplifies the material. Rather he sees the concepts of modern pure probability as challenging precisely because they are so relevant to understanding the puzzles of the world around us."
Çinlar is able to communicate in the classroom the passion and precision that characterizes his own research, which stands at the top of his field, colleagues and students noted. His graduate courses include "Probability Theory" and "Markov Processes," and his 1975 textbook "Introduction to Stochastic Processes" remains the standard graduate text in its field. "It is easy to know the days on which he is teaching, as he can be found in the EQuad Café for hours beforehand, poring over his notes, refining the material and generally preparing to make each lecture a master class," wrote one colleague.
One former undergraduate student who is now a professor at another university said Çinlar directly inspired her to follow in his footsteps, writing, "It is said that the best teachers make a lasting impact on their students' lives, and it is clear to me that my relationship with Professor Çinlar has done just that, altering my trajectory from one that would have landed me on Wall Street to one that has led me to pursue a career as an academic and discover my love of research."
Díaz-Quiñones, who has taught at Princeton since 1983, will retire at the end of this academic year. His introductory classes on Latin American literature and poetry are considered "legendary" by students and colleagues. His undergraduate and graduate courses have included "Literature and Memory in Latin America and the Caribbean," "Modern Hispanic-Caribbean Poetry," "19th- and 20th-Century Latin American Thought" and "Literature of the Cuban Revolution."
Students and colleagues noted that Díaz-Quiñones' lectures are a form of poetry in their own right. "There are very few professors who can match Arcadio's remarkable, mesmeric teaching talents and the profound influence he has had on the hundreds of students he has taught," wrote one colleague. Also, a former graduate student wrote, "His words follow a deliberate trajectory, a graceful arc that moves with not only direction and determination, but also form and elegance," and added that, "Complex ideas are rendered succinctly, and his listeners absorb and appreciate them in the moment as part of a performance of thought."
As a pioneering figure in the field of modern Latin American literary studies, Díaz-Quiñones seeks to foster understanding of the diverse cultures of the Spanish-speaking world in his research and teaching. "Arcadio taught me that the best teachers assume the challenge of helping their students avoid hollow or stereotyped views of other cultures and traditions," wrote one former graduate student.
Students noted Díaz-Quiñones' unyielding dedication, citing examples such as returning to campus from a sabbatical to attend a play directed by one of his undergraduates, and providing graduate students with access to his private collection of work by Puerto Rican authors for their research. Students, in turn, are inspired to tackle the intellectual challenges he sets before them. "Growing up, I had read Spanish literature in translation, never having the courage to grab an original, but now with the encouragement of Professor Díaz-Quiñones, I was reading Cesar Vallejo and Xavier Villauruttia," wrote one current undergraduate. "The lectures he presented about the context and contours of each poem motivated me to write my own in Spanish and English."
A colleague in the Program in Latin American Studies, where Díaz-Quiñones is an associated faculty member, wrote, "It was tempting to make anything Arcadio taught a prerequisite for my courses. These students have an engagement, an excitement and an appetite that is just remarkable."
Sitney, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1980, is one of the world's leading authorities in the history of avant-garde cinema. He also is a scholar steeped in the study of classics and comparative literature whose reputation as a world-class teacher stretches beyond the Program in Visual Arts to inspire students and colleagues across campus. "Like the beautiful and challenging films he teaches, he has a cult following," one undergraduate alumnus wrote in nominating Sitney for the teaching award.
Sitney's visual arts courses include "Magic in Avant-Garde Cinema," "The Image of Greece in European Cinema," "Cinema From World War II to the Present" and "Major Filmmakers." Aspiring filmmakers and cinema scholars are not the only students thankful for Sitney's ability to illuminate the meaning of abstract or obscure films. One undergraduate alumnus who majored in mathematics wrote, "When I watch films now, two years after the end of the course, I sometimes catch myself thinking about issues from Professor Sitney's lectures and wishing that I could pause what was in front of me so I could ask him a question." One colleague wrote, "Generations of Princeton students have taken his courses perhaps with the idea of introducing a little enjoyment or entertainment into their course schedules -- a little movie-watching, say -- only to have their eyes opened to the rich literature and infinite nuance of the art of cinema."
Students and colleagues lauded Sitney's intense devotion to his role as a teacher and mentor who guides his students with honest, constructive feedback. One current undergraduate wrote that Sitney "certainly welcomes outside opinions and viewpoints to the table. In his comments next to one of the best paper grades he gave me, he told me that he absolutely could not agree less with my conclusive point about a film. Nevertheless, because I had constructed a coherent and persuasive argument, he gave me full points."
Sitney has team-taught humanistic studies courses including "Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture" and "From Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Literature and the Arts." Last fall he volunteered to do so again -- even though he was not scheduled to teach -- after 75 freshmen signed up for a course originally designed for only 30. One colleague wrote, "Sitney has a vision of undergraduate education in the humanities that invites students to saturate their lives with demanding works of art and literature and with serious critical reflection on that material. This vision and devotion to it are frankly inspiring." Sitney is one of the rare faculty members who teach courses in both halves of the humanities sequence -- from antiquity to the Middle Ages, and from the Renaissance to 20th century. In Sitney, students have been fortunate to find a model for academic rigor and intellectual honesty, wrote one colleague: "Beneath the gruff exterior, the refusal to coat strong pills and the blunt judgment of academic skills, they [students] quickly found a deeply sympathetic and wise counselor. I could only wish I had had a teacher like him at college."
Stout, who holds his Ph.D. from Princeton and joined the University faculty in 1975, is an associated faculty member in the departments of philosophy and politics, as well as the University Center for Human Values and the Center for the Study of Religion. His undergraduate and graduate courses include "Religion in Modern Thought and Film," "Religion and Ethical Theory," "Philosophy and the Study of Religion" and "Contemporary Pragmatism."
While he is known for his wide-ranging research and teaching interests, Stout is equally renowned for the lively spirit he brings to the classroom and to his longtime role as faculty fellow for the varsity men's soccer team. Stout has startled students with his solo rendition of "Amazing Grace" in a lecture on Pascal, danced to Marvin Gaye at the end of a lecture on civil religion in America and danced in the locker room after a soccer victory. One colleague noted in his nomination of Stout that "high points" of his course on religion and film included "the Scottish accent he uses for his discussion of Hume [and] his comparison of the task of the study of religion to Winnie the Pooh and Piglet's trammel through the snow in search of a Woozle. Stout obviously enjoys putting on a show from time to time, but … his real concern is to make the difficult material he teaches accessible."
Stout is a rigorous critic of his students' work. One former undergraduate wrote that after turning in a paper, "Jeff sent me nine single-spaced pages of comments, longer even than the paper I had sent him. He went through every paragraph of my paper, charitably interpreting my arguments, pointing out every hole and missed opportunity in my thinking. From another professor, it might have been devastating. But Jeff not only criticized my paper, he also called my attention to moments when I had started down interesting paths or asked questions which might have led me to a more satisfying argument."
Known as "The Prof" in his role as faculty fellow for the soccer team, Stout frequently meets with team members to discuss social and moral issues, in addition to dispensing academic advice. He has said that writers, teachers and coaches are all in the business of "awakening sleepers." Viewing coaches as models for good teaching, Stout has forged strong friendships with Princeton's current men's soccer coach, Jim Barlow, who is a former undergraduate student of Stout's, and former Princeton coach Bob Bradley, who now heads the U.S. men's national soccer team. One current graduate student noted that "Stout is self-conscious about his pedagogy and seeks to cultivate ever-higher levels of excellence in his teaching." While coaches may be unlikely sources of inspiration for many academics, the student wrote, Stout "turns to these figures … precisely because he cares so much about his teaching."