Graduate students lauded as excellent teachers

May 29, 2009 10 a.m.

The Princeton Graduate School will present 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 2009 winners are Aaron Hostetter of the English department, Gwyneth McClendon of the politics department, Katherine (Kate) Meierdiercks of the civil and environmental engineering department, Lillian Pierce of the mathematics department and Ilya Ryzhov of the operations research and financial engineering department.

A sixth student, Yves Plancherel of the geosciences department, will receive the Friends of the Davis International Center Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given annually to an international graduate student.

All will be honored at the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni's Tribute to Teaching Reception on Saturday, May 30. Each winner will receive $1,000.

Hostetter, who came to Princeton in 2003 after earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Colorado, was recognized by faculty members and students in the English department for his innovative pedagogy, meticulous preparation and dedication to student learning. He has sparked the imagination and intellect of undergraduates while leading precepts for courses such as the rigorous "Introduction to English Literature" and "Dirty Words: Satire, Slander and Society." One student wrote that she was nominating him for the award "for his intellectual ferocity, his warm concern for students both in and out of the classroom, his thoroughness in topic preparation, his attention to not only content but structure, his willingness to spend so much time and effort personally going over papers and his receptiveness to literary ideas that sometimes contradicted his own or were entirely out of left field." In 2006-07, the English department chose Hostetter as its official graduate student liaison to the University's McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. In that role, he developed advanced pedagogical workshops and roundtables for his fellow graduate student assistants in instruction.

McClendon, who came to Princeton in 2006 after earning her bachelor's degree from Columbia University, has served as the preceptor for two high-level politics courses this academic year -- "Politics in Developing Countries" and "Comparative Ethnic Conflict."  Rafaela Dancygier, assistant professor of politics and international affairs, was among those who recommended McClendon for the teaching award after seeing her at work as a preceptor for the latter course. McClendon's "knowledge of the material, her engagement of students and her ability to approach the material in new ways made for excellent precepts," Dancygier observed. Students who recommended McClendon for the award offered similar words of praise. One student wrote: "She has a firm handle on her precepts, is always well organized, and seems very passionate and knowledgeable about the subjects she teaches and about helping students grow and learn about the topics."

Meierdiercks, who came to Princeton in 2002 after earning her bachelor's degree from Tufts University, just wrapped up her seventh and final year as a doctoral student in the civil and environmental engineering department. She joined the Princeton Writing Program in 2007-08, leading a successful writing seminar on "The Science and Politics of Urban Sprawl." In this course, students learn to advance original arguments while studying the environmental impact of sprawling suburban development across the United States. Students have praised her for encouraging their participation in class; for giving helpful feedback on drafts and revisions; and for her one-on-one conferences with them. "I have learned how to enter the academic conversation, write a functioning thesis, develop an argument and interact with sources," one student wrote. "My writing has become more mature and actually has a point or purpose beyond just completing the assignment." Meierdiercks also has taught a writing and reading course for international graduate students in science and engineering and served in various leadership positions within the University community. Those range from being assistant master of Butler College to serving on the committee that hired postdoctoral fellows in science and engineering to teach writing and reading courses for international graduate students. "In each of these roles, she distinguished herself through her generosity toward the students and teachers she worked with," wrote Kerry Walk, director of the Princeton Writing Program.

Pierce, a 2002 Princeton alumna who has been a graduate student in Princeton's mathematics department since 2004, is admired by her undergraduate students and the faculty with whom she has collaborated. "In my more than 25 years at Princeton, I have never encountered anyone who came close to the service she has done for the department and the University in terms of mentoring, innovation and inspiration," wrote Andrew Wiles, the chair of Princeton's mathematics department and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics. Alongside mathematics professor Robert Gunning, Pierce revised the way the standard honors course in multivariable calculus is taught. Gunning described Pierce as "a remarkable teacher and an influential role model in modern mathematics, as well as a very promising research mathematician." Those who nominated her said she is devoted to her students, frequently giving them time beyond what is required. "She is extremely dedicated to her students and is more than willing to sacrifice her own time for their sake," one undergraduate noted. "She often stayed far past the end of class to answer questions and make further clarifications for students."

Ryzhov has his bachelor's degree from Cornell University and has been a graduate student at Princeton since 2006. One undergraduate described the precepts that he led as "perhaps the most thorough precepts I had ever experienced. … Every student who walked into Ilya's precept had the expectation of learning something new, whether it be a different perspective of the material presented in lecture or some elegant algebraic shortcuts, and we were never disappointed." Other undergraduates said they benefited greatly from Ryzhov's willingness to give students time outside the classroom and designated office hours. "Not only did he always come thoroughly prepared for his precepts, but he also went beyond his duty as a preceptor, always staying overtime to answer any questions that the students might have," one student noted. "His help in precepts and office hours helped me gain a deeper understanding of the material, and his friendly and unassuming personality really made the learning experience a very enjoyable one."

Plancherel, who originally is from Switzerland, came to Princeton in 2005 after earning his bachelor's degree from Hawaiian Pacific University and his master's degree in oceanography from the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He was unanimously nominated for the international teaching award for the second consecutive year by the geosciences department. Gregory van der Vink, visiting lecturer in the department, wrote that Plancherel is the most worthy candidate for the award that he has encountered in his 15 years at Princeton. What distinguishes Plancherel is that he is more than a responsible grader or a skilled guide for students through course materials, van der Vink wrote. While he is strong in both those areas, van der Vink noted that "he is truly outstanding in what is perhaps the most difficult skill of all -- gently guiding students with probing questions that allow them to identify creative approaches to problem-solving by themselves."