Two to receive Phi Beta Kappa teaching awards

The Princeton University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa will honor Daniel Oppenheimer, associate professor of psychology and public affairs, and Michael Smith, the McCosh Professor of Philosophy, with its annual awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching. 

The awards will be presented at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, which will be held at 9 a.m. Monday, June 4, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, prior to the graduating seniors' Class Day ceremony.

Princeton students elected to the academic honor society have selected recipients of the teaching prize annually since 2004. The students define the criteria for excellence in teaching as: skill in instruction; commitment to working with and building relationships with undergraduates; and ability to spark students' intellectual interests. Each winner is presented with a plaque.

Oppenheimer, who has been a Princeton faculty member since 2004, focuses his research on causal reasoning, judgment and decision-making. In 2011, he was awarded a President's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Oppenheimer is particularly known among students for teaching "Introduction to Psychology" each year, in which he engages the class through methods such as showing optical illusions and offering bags of M&Ms to students who volunteer for classroom demonstrations. He also has taught a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs undergraduate policy task force on higher education testing, as well as graduate courses on psychology and policy and on accountability in higher education.

Senior Nathaniel Fleming wrote in his recommendation that Oppenheimer's lectures "succeed at making the material personally meaningful and accessible to students while also maintaining a high degree of intellectual rigor."

Fleming added that "Oppenheimer's teaching goes far beyond his lectures" and that "he has been a warm, affable guide who makes the study of psychology deeply personal and meaningful."

Smith, who also is an associated faculty member in the Department of Politics, initially served on the Princeton faculty from 1985 to 1989 and returned to the University in 2004. He will become the chair of the Department of Philosophy in fall 2012.

Smith's research focuses on ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of mind and action, political philosophy and philosophy of law — topics he has explored in teaching numerous undergraduate and graduate courses at Princeton.

In his recommendation, senior Jonathan Sarnoff wrote that Smith "is known for the breadth of his involvement in the philosophy department's undergraduate curriculum," including teaching the popular "Introduction to Moral Philosophy." "Many students first exposed to philosophy under Professor Smith's guidance … never look back and embark full-time upon the field," Sarnoff wrote.

Sarnoff added that Smith is highly sought by students as an adviser for their independent work and is known for his "ability to guide the development of his students' ideas to their highest potential."