Graduate students lauded as excellent teachers

May 30, 2008, 10 p.m.

The Princeton Graduate School has given awards to six graduate students in recognition of their outstanding abilities as teachers.

The annual Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni Teaching Awards are sponsored by the graduate alumni and are selected by the Graduate School administration. The five 2008 winners are Abigail Heald and Briallen Hopper, both of the English department, Patrick Murphy of the electrical engineering department, Mary Steffel of the psychology department and James L. Wilson of the politics department.

A sixth student, Elidor Mehilli of the history department, received the Friends of the International Center Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given annually to an international graduate student.

All were honored at the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni's Tribute to Teaching Dinner on Friday, May 30. Each winner received $1,000.

Heald, who came to Princeton in 2001 after earning her bachelor's degree from Colgate University, will earn her doctorate this year. She has distinguished herself as a teacher, leading precepts in such classes as "Shakespeare II," "Milton" and "Shakespeare and Film." Professor William Gleason hand-selected her to serve as the graduate co-instructor for the English department's pedagogy seminar, an assignment only entrusted to the "most talented teaching assistants," he said. One student said that "Abby teaches wisdom and courage and patience." Using characteristic flair and good humor, Heald, according to Professor Esther Schor, "has already made a mark on students from many majors."

Hopper came to Princeton in 2002 after earning her bachelor's degree from the University of Puget Sound in Washington and conducting postgraduate studies at the University of York in the United Kingdom. She served as a preceptor for "American Short Fiction" and "African American Satire." Students and faculty remarked on her ability to instill confidence in her students as well as enhancing students' abilities as writers. "I feel that the personal attention that I received from her has truly enhanced my ability to critically analyze texts and create arguments," a student said. Kerry Walk, director of the Princeton Writing Program, said, "Briallen is a teacher whose greatest gift is to inspire students to take their thinking and writing to the next level -- and then to the level beyond that one."

Murphy came to Princeton in 2002 after earning his bachelor's degree from Boston University.  He led precepts for a number of courses at Princeton including "Integrated Circuits Practice and Principles," "Electronic Circuits" and "New Eyes for the World: Introduction to Photonics." Students appreciated him for his patience, kind manner and communication skills. "Patrick's teaching is clear and concise and his teaching style is appropriately casual and exploratory," a student said. Professor Claire Gmachl praised him for his troubleshooting abilities, particularly in one course, where he aided non-science and non-engineering students with software and circuit board problems as they constructed electronic products from scratch. "He individually approached the students and met them at their experience and motivation level, and then guided them to greater achievement and satisfaction," Gmachl said.

Steffel, a fourth-year student, earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University. She led precepts for a number of courses, including "Introduction to Psychology," "Social Psychology," "Psychology of  Decision-Making and Judgment" and "Theories of Psychotherapy." One student said she was "the best graduate student instructor I had during my time at Princeton." She was praised for the enthusiasm and excitement she brought to the classroom and for her abilities as a "phenomenal" discussion leader. Another student added that "she cares deeply about enriching her students." According to Professor Ronald Comer, "Mary is one of the most skilled and dedicated graduate student instructors with whom I have worked in my 33 years at Princeton."

Wilson is a third-year student. He earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University and his J.D. from Yale Law School. He has led precepts in "Democratic Theory" and "Modern Political Theory." Professor Philip Pettit said, "I have rarely come across a preceptor who has been so successful at simultaneously arousing the enthusiasm of his students and enabling them to make the most of their talents." Students praised him for his commitment to them. Professor Leif Wenar said he possessed a "natural teacher's conviction" that each student, regardless of ability or background in the subject, should be shown how he or she can engage seriously with the course material.

Mehilli, a third-year student and a native of Albania, received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University. This year, he led precepts for "The Soviet Empire" and "A History of the World Since 1300." Students said they were greatly encouraged by him to participate and ask questions. He is highly regarded for his deep knowledge of the subject area as well as for his sense of humor. Professor Jeremy Adelman said, "Elidor's students worship him, and they might well. He is a deeply engaged instructor who has a special knack for motivating and challenging students."