Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies June 6.

They are: William Bialek, the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics; Joel Cooper, professor of psychology; William Gleason, associate professor of English; and Sankaran (Sundar) Sundaresan, professor of chemical engineering.

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.

Bialek, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2001, also is a member of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. He is one of the architects of the new integrated science curriculum for undergraduates, which involves faculty from chemistry, computer science, molecular biology and physics. In addition, he co-teaches the introductory course in that curriculum and leads a graduate-level biophysics class.

Those nominating Bialek for the award singled out his superior lecturing skills and his ability to integrate concepts across scientific disciplines. He is legendary for showing up for class armed only with a bucket of colorful sidewalk chalk he uses to cover the blackboard. Without referring to notes, he delivers lectures with "a blend of rigor and care that appeals to the entire range of students," according to a colleague.

"Anyone who has ever attended a lecture by Professor Bialek can tell you that his brilliance and intellectual capabilities are unmatched, and his ability to express not only the substance of his subject matter but also the passion he has for it is simply astounding," added a student from the integrated science class. "I left every lecture feeling awed and blown away at what science has to offer."

Bialek is also known for his accessibility to students and the care he takes to help them comprehend the science. Several mentioned the very thorough lecture notes he prepares and distributes to students.

"Every day, with no exaggeration, we would walk out of his class amazed and excited not only about the way in which Professor Bialek had presented his lectures, but also by his ability to explain anything," wrote two students who also were members of the integrated science class. "He created an environment where questions were encouraged and supported. It was not about getting through the material, but about making sure that every student in the room left his lecture understanding what had been taught."

Cooper, who came to Princeton in 1969, teaches a popular undergraduate course titled "Persuasion and Propaganda" and introductory psychology and social psychology classes. He also has led graduate seminars, most recently on "Attitude Structure and Change."

He is well known for his engaging style of lecturing. Students and colleagues have said that he provides the right mix of theory with concrete, relevant and contemporary illustrations. "Professor Cooper is one of those professors who make Princeton 'Princeton,'" wrote one undergraduate. "His breadth, depth of knowledge, and the fluidity with which he conveys that knowledge, [are] truly incomparable."

Several commented on the research component of the "Persuasion and Propaganda" course, for which students must design and conduct an empirical study.

"He provided abundant guidance every step of the way, obviously investing himself into our studies as much as we all were," one student wrote. "We became a group of scholars eagerly delving into the material every week and trying to apply the material to our own empirical research. Professor Cooper would wait excitedly every week to hear about our studies, and take as much time as possible, whenever possible, to help us troubleshoot every detail of the experiment, especially when the data took unexpected turns."

Several graduate alumni, who have gone on to careers as professors, wrote letters praising Cooper for his mentoring skills. "Joel's sincere concern for his students and his eagerness to provide them with opportunities and settings in which they can grow as scientists has long been apparent," one said in his nomination letter. "Maybe, the best compliment I can pay Joel is that I have considered him a model in this regard and have tried to adopt the same approach with my own students."

Gleason, a Princeton faculty member since 1993, specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American literature, American cultural studies and popular culture. He teaches undergraduate classes in the English department and the American studies program on topics such as "American Literature from 1860 to 1930" and "American Places." His graduate seminars have included "American Realism and Naturalism" and "Architecture and 19th-Century American Literature."

Gleason has served as the English department’s director of graduate studies for four years. This spring, he was honored for his efforts to nurture the intellectual, professional and personal growth of graduate students with a University Graduate Mentoring Award. Students nominating him for the teaching award cited his unfailing devotion to them.

"Bill has been a truly outstanding role model and mentor to me -- and for so many others," wrote one graduate student. "With every new challenge I faced as a student, he was always there to turn to. Without fanfare, he puts a huge amount of time and effort into providing the support graduate students need as they find their footing in the worlds of scholarship and teaching."

Gleason has worked to meet the needs of students through both extracurricular and curricular offerings. He has organized workshops and seminars for graduate students on teaching, publishing and other professional activities. He also has retooled the undergraduate curriculum, developing popular new courses such as "American Best Sellers" and refocusing others on contemporary topics such as urbanization and technology.

Several students praised his ability to lead thoughtful discussions in class. "As a preceptor, Professor Gleason created an exquisite balance between sharing his own insights and prodding us to articulate our own," wrote one undergraduate. "He was by far the most encouraging and respectful preceptor I have had, which motivated even the quieter students to feel comfortable speaking."

Sundaresan has taught 15 different courses since joining the Princeton faculty in 1980, including many of the core chemical engineering courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. One colleague emphasized his great versatility and called him a "pillar" of the chemical engineering department's teaching program. In 2005, he won a Distinguished Teacher Award from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Most recently, Sundaresan has been leading an undergraduate class on "Mass, Momentum and Energy Transport" and a graduate class on "Incompressible Fluid Mechanics." One graduate student admitted that he "despised" the subject of fluid mechanics before taking Sundaresan's class.

"But never before or since have I experienced such a dramatic change in my perspective on a subject," he wrote. "Professor Sundaresan taught the material in such a clear and logical way that I couldn't avoid understanding it. I finally saw the beauty and unity of fluid mechanics."

Other students commended his clear lecture notes and detailed problem sets. Sundaresan is known for creating special tutorials for students who want more exposure to specific topics as well as for sending lengthy e-mails to classes that respond to questions raised by individuals during office hours. Students also praised his open-door policy and his efforts to seek feedback to improve his courses.

"Never once did he run out of different ways to explain a complicated concept," wrote one undergraduate. "One particular time, two of my classmates and I went to his office hours for help. … He actually refused to let us leave until the confused looks on our faces turned to smiles of understanding."