Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, May 31.

They are: Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs; Hendrik Hartog, the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty; Alexander Nehamas, the Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy and comparative literature; and Daniel Oppenheimer, associate professor of psychology and public affairs.

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.

Case, who earned a master's in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1983 and a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton in 1988, has been a member of the University faculty since 1991. Her scholarly interests are economic development, primarily in South Africa, and health issues in developed and developing countries. Her teaching largely focuses on development economics at the master's level in the Wilson School and at the doctoral level in the Department of Economics.

In the classroom, Case brings technical and theoretical subjects to life and reminds students that their mission as scholars is to help make a difference in society. In recommending Case for the award, a current Ph.D. student in economics wrote, "Professor Case's passion for South Africa surfaced in nearly every lecture through anecdotes or rigorous academic studies. Her enthusiasm and unquenchable thirst to understand the problems besetting South African households infused life into dry or seemingly intangible economic theory. … Professor Case's excitement over the latest release of a comprehensive demography survey from KwaZulu-Natal, or lingering questions as to how and why family composition was dramatically changing over time, reminded us of the bigger world beyond the confines of Princeton University." Another graduate student in economics added, "She is a teacher who can transform any dry, theoretic paper into accessible and exciting material, full of unanswered questions for us to explore together with her. She turns each lecture into an engaging discussion in which even the shy students like me feel stimulated to participate."

Colleagues noted that Case is both tireless and selfless in supporting the development of her advisees and other students. For example, she established a research lunch for faculty and graduate students who work in development and health, at which students present works in progress. In addition, two colleagues recalled, "Several summers ago, Anne arranged a research colloquium for approximately eight Ph.D. students at a remote field site in South Africa. There they learned about the research going on at the site and interacted with South African researchers and graduate students. We know that Anne used her own unrestricted funds to cover a substantial portion of this colloquium -- funds she could have used for her own work."

As an adviser, Case is known for motivating students to pursue challenging questions and to think creatively about how to develop their own research ideas. "Teaching economics demands a delicate balance between instilling confidence in a student's abilities while still making sure they are uncomfortable enough to push themselves as hard as is required. Anne excels at this skill," a former advisee wrote. Another former graduate student recalled, "When I would come to her office with a crazy idea, possibly promising but probably almost impossible to actually pursue, she'd join my excitement and say something like, 'OK, this is great. Now just do it.' And I, eventually out of excuses, just did it."

Hartog, a Princeton faculty member since 1992, is a historian and legal scholar who also directs the interdisciplinary Program in American Studies. His breadth of interests, collaborative mindset and infectious enthusiasm for learning have inspired both undergraduate and graduate students who regard Hartog as a model scholar, teacher and mentor. "His office hours are always filled with students seeking advice from him," wrote one colleague in nominating Hartog for the award. "Many of these are not -- I repeat, not -- his advisees, but people who have gotten to know him in classes, through the suggestion of other students and faculty, or simply from going to public lectures, workshops and conferences and chatting with him afterward."

One of Hartog's signature undergraduate courses, "American Legal History," provides an overview of complex legal cases. His approach is not what many students expect when they enroll, but one that they ultimately find invaluable, according to a colleague who served as a preceptor for the course. "These are not 'Famous Cases 101.' They are about pigs in the street of antebellum New York; common law water rights in the West; slavery in New Jersey," Hartog's colleague wrote. "None of these problems really offer an answer about legal history in any way, but they are meant to demonstrate how legal historians ask questions, what sources look like and how we struggle over and through them. Above all, they are meant to show that law is messy (not tidy, as the students hope)." He engages students in these issues with a "no bells and whistles" approach that emphasizes critical thought, and "gradually they begin to trust Professor Hartog and to see themselves emerging as bigger thinkers."

Hartog is a diligent critic of his students' work, vigorously editing their prose and challenging their arguments to make them more efficient and persuasive writers. He puts similar effort into finding time to engage one-on-one with students. One undergraduate student wrote that students may often "assume that a good teacher is the equivalent of a brilliant or charismatic lecturer, when in fact the most valuable kind of teaching (and learning) often takes place outside the classroom or lecture hall -- during office hours, through email exchanges, from timely and insightful feedback on assignments, through frequent, focused and open-minded conversations. Although Dirk's lectures are on par with the best I've experienced in the history department, he is also a master at this other kind of teaching."

This approach also has won Hartog praise from graduate students. "Perhaps the most important quality among those that make Dirk a great, great teacher is that, as best as I can describe it, he has mastered the art of being a teacher-friend," wrote a former graduate student. "Becoming Dirk's student means right away entering into a conversation in which, somehow, Dirk manages to be a mentor, a guide and a resource, while at the same time making one feel like a colleague -- a colleague-in-the-making, to be sure, but a colleague nonetheless."

Nehamas, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1971, has taught at the University since 1990. Renowned as a scholar with a wide range of interests across the humanities, Nehamas is an internationally recognized expert on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He is best known among undergraduates for his course on Nietzsche, which is among the most popular in the philosophy department. Students also have cited his undergraduate courses on literature and arts and the philosophy of art as some of the best they have taken at Princeton.

While praising the memorable quality of his lectures, undergraduates also cited Nehamas as a caring, spirited mentor who devotes considerable effort to advising their independent work and guiding them in less formal settings. One student wrote that Nehamas "embodies the ideal Princeton professor, who not only lectures but also takes the time to enjoy a friendly conversation with his students. He is a humanist in the most admirable sense of that word: someone who believes in education as the highest ideal." Added another student, "Professor Nehamas is unfailingly kind, frequently witty, an admirable lecturer and deeply interested in his students. He represents the highest standards of excellence in teaching and in cultivating individual relationships with his pupils."

This esteem is shared by Nehamas' graduate students, who have given high marks to his courses on moral psychology, 19th-century German philosophy and the philosophy of art. He also is a respected adviser whose dedication to mentoring continues to inspire former graduate students who are now professors themselves. "Alexander is among the three or four most memorable teachers in my life," wrote one former graduate student. "His combination of intellectual generosity, deep engagement and careful, thoughtful, critical feedback to students distinguishes him from even the strongest teachers among my professors and colleagues. He makes a decisive impact on the lives of a huge number of students. Indeed, in making my own choices as a teacher, I continually return to him as a model and ask myself how Alexander would manage things."

Colleagues marvel at Nehamas' expansive research and teaching interests. In addition to his dual appointments in philosophy and comparative literature, he has served as chair of Princeton's Council of the Humanities, founding director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and director of the Program in Hellenic Studies. "What he has given in the classroom is prodigious," wrote one colleague, adding that "wherever there are students of extraordinary learning and/or imagination and/or originality, they turn out to have found their way to Alexander, whether studying aesthetics or Nietzsche, or simply finding confirmation of what it means to be a humanist of the greatest rigor and liveliness."

Oppenheimer, who has taught at Princeton since 2004, studies human decision-making in a variety of contexts, from education to charitable giving to the stock market. Oppenheimer's pursuit of his eclectic collection of research interests is fueled by the intellectual and creative stimulation he gets from teaching, including leading his popular "Introduction to Psychology" course, advising undergraduate and graduate students, and serving as faculty fellow to the Princeton men's and women's varsity volleyball teams.

In taking on teaching duties for "Introduction to Psychology," Oppenheimer has earned the respect of his colleagues and the rapt attention of his students by developing a curriculum that incorporates amusing yet inspiring lectures with engaging laboratory sessions. He tosses bags of M&Ms to students who volunteer to be part of classroom demonstrations, and even brings a 5-year-old "guest lecturer" into class to demonstrate how children think. "As a teacher, Danny is always the consummate psychologist," a colleague wrote in nominating him for the award. "His lectures are fun and entertaining on the surface, but underneath they are absolutely brilliant. Everything psychologists know about how people learn and what motivates them to learn is deployed to maximal effect." His colleague noted that Oppenheimer said that leading the labor-intensive introductory course actually would inspire him to produce more research, and "his productivity over the last seven years has borne out his claim."

Oppenheimer's teaching portfolio in the Wilson School includes graduate courses on psychology and policy and on accountability in higher education, as well as an undergraduate policy task force on higher education testing. One student from his policy task force said Oppenheimer "was able to create an environment in which one never felt pressured to find the 'right' thing to say or was afraid to speak his/her mind for fear that the ideas would be considered 'silly.' At the same time, he was a rigorous discussion leader who constantly kept us on our toes by challenging our assumptions, playing devil's advocate and telling us we could do better."

Oppenheimer maintains a similarly challenging but supportive environment for the students who conduct research under his supervision in the "Opp Lab," where he holds weekly meetings for all of his advisees, research assistants and other students who want to become involved in psychological research. Oppenheimer's "encouragement of excellence was coupled with a healthy dose of humor that made the Opp Lab fun," said a former student. "Silly as it may seem, knowing as an undergraduate that the 'Mr. Incredible' toy award was up for grabs in weekly lab meetings made me all that much more eager to exceed requirements. Meanwhile, while this weekly award was taken fairly seriously as an added incentive to produce and be promptly recognized for exceptional work, knowing that the 'Best Attempt at Humor' award was also up for grabs made the meetings lighthearted events, and knowing that the 'Worst Attempt at Humor' award would inevitably go to Danny put us all at ease. Danny's unique brand of brilliantly corny humor works wonders in making him relatable despite his genius."