Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Four Princeton University faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, June 4.

They are: Yelena Baraz, assistant professor of classics; Andrew Houck, associate professor of electrical engineering; Deborah Nord, professor of English; and David Spergel, the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation and professor of astrophysical sciences.

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 students, faculty colleagues and alumni.

Baraz, a faculty member since 2007, is a specialist in Latin language and literature; Roman cultural and social history; and the history of ideas. She is the Jonathan Edwards Bicentennial Preceptor, an honor that a colleague noted points to her as a "rising star" and that, "as a teacher she is what we in the classics biz call 'ne plus ultra': she is simply the best."

The letters nominating Baraz for the teaching award reinforce this message, with colleagues describing her "warmth, approachability and generosity." One fellow faculty member experienced this firsthand when he took Latin 103, known as "Turbo Latin," an intensive introduction to Latin — taught by Baraz. "Yelena is the best language teacher I have ever seen or experienced," he wrote. "One of Yelena's strengths as a teacher is her ability to swing between every possible motivational register for a student."

In the classroom, Baraz engages all students in discussion. A former student who took three courses with Baraz and was inspired to major in classics said: "In class, she is one of the rare professors who strikes a perfect balance between teaching and discussion. She asks questions that prompt students to read the text closely and then build from their readings to develop ideas." Another student, now studying classics in graduate school, said Baraz, who was his senior thesis adviser, helped him feel "intellectually comfortable and non-threatened" and helped draw out "nascent ideas."

Baraz is highly regarded as a mentor, even a "role model." One colleague said that in serving as placement adviser for graduate students, Baraz "threw herself into it with extraordinary energy, empathy, tact and shrewdness, along with a willingness to administer the odd dose of tough love." A graduate student wrote, "I know she will continue to show the same care as a teacher and as a mentor for years to come."

Houck, who has served on the faculty since 2008, focuses on the role of quantum mechanics in electronics. A 2000 Princeton alumnus, Houck is an associated faculty member with the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials and the Princeton Center for Complex Materials.

Colleagues credited Houck for fueling interest in electrical engineering courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Under his oversight, the course "Introduction to Quantum Computing" has more than doubled in enrollment, drawing students from across the sciences and engineering. "Andrew's high-quality teaching and his infectious enthusiasm for the topic, which at times can be very technical, have made the course a major hit," noted a faculty member. Houck's introduction of the graduate course "Implementations of Quantum Information Systems" also has had great success, causing a colleague to note: "Within three years of joining us, Andrew was offering one of the largest graduate courses in the electrical engineering department."

In the classroom, Houck brings technical subjects to life. "Professor Houck's utter exuberance for electrical engineering is contagious," said one undergraduate. Students also commended his tireless support. "Completing the quantum computing sequence turned out to be one of my proudest accomplishments as an undergraduate," said a former student. "Stepping so far beyond my comfort zone would not have been successful without Andrew's incredible support."

As an adviser and a mentor, Houck has inspired students to pursue research projects that often influence career choices. One undergraduate who worked over a summer in Houck's lab and went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton noted: "In his lab, Houck created a dynamic environment that was open and inviting for new students to learn." Added another graduate student: "Beyond being absurdly intelligent (which he is), Andrew has been a fantastic mentor. When working with me, he has spent a lot of time teaching me how to think and be a good experimentalist, rather than just solving my problems."

Nord, who has taught at Princeton since 1989, is a scholar of Victorian literature and feminist, gender and sexuality studies. She is an associated faculty member with the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. A colleague noted how her nomination letters underscore the important place she holds in the minds of undergraduates, graduate students and colleagues, in showing that "whether Deborah is mentoring doctoral theses, patiently developing ideas in a seminar, or singing with students at a Dickens birthday party, her teaching addresses the whole person."

Students described Nord in many ways, including: "great," "amazing," "great lecturer, masterful seminar leader," "dedicated and impassioned educator," and "one of the most gifted teachers I've encountered at the University." An undergraduate who took her course "Austen, Brontë, Eliot" said it was "one of the most intellectually stimulating and engaging seminars I took during my time at Princeton because of Professor Nord's superb teaching."

Nord was also commended for her generosity toward students outside of class. One of her senior thesis advisees said, "Professor Nord welcomed me to come to her office hours every week and has been willing to brainstorm with me, talk about close readings, or read entire chapter drafts and write up thorough comments." Added a former student: "Without ever being nosy or pushy, she always made it clear that her students were important to her as people as well as developing minds."

Nord's mentoring also is important to graduate students and colleagues at Princeton and at other universities as they develop their careers. "Throughout graduate school and in my postgraduate career, Professor Nord has remained a constant source of sage wisdom and guidance," wrote one of her former students. Another former student, now an assistant professor, said how grateful she was for Nord's commitment to her students: "I feel so lucky that I know and have been taught by Deborah Nord — a mentor who can get you through a dissertation, a job search, and the hardest parts of life with intellectual honesty, existential grace and an unflappable sense of humor."

Spergel, a theoretical astrophysicist who has taught at Princeton since 1987, is chair of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. A member of Princeton's Class of 1982, he is an associated faculty member with the departments of physics and mechanical and aerospace engineering.

A world-renowned researcher, Spergel is dedicated to working closely with his students. Noting the value of working with a researcher with such a "breadth of knowledge," one graduate student said: "While Professor Spergel is one of the leading figures in his field of cosmology, he remains remarkably accessible to his graduate students and goes out of his way to make them succeed." Added a former student who is now a professor: "One of David's amazing qualities was/is to seek promising students from humble backgrounds ... and then to train them to become successful, often world-class scientists."

A colleague wrote that Spergel has "an outstanding record as a teacher, both in the classroom and mentoring undergraduates and graduate students in research." He added that Spergel has supervised the highest number of Ph.D. students in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences, who have "gone on to become scientific leaders themselves in institutions all over the world." Many of those former students wrote letters of nomination from across the country and around the world. One, now an astronomy professor, wrote: "While my debts to David are many, they all spring from his deep generosity as a mentor."

Spergel is also highly regarded for his classroom teaching and his ability to address students with different levels of knowledge, from freshmen in his seminar "Imagining Other Worlds" to advanced graduate seminars in cosmology. "I think that it is his ability to share his enthusiasm so easily with anyone who is willing to listen that distinguishes him even here at Princeton," said a student who worked on his junior paper with Spergel. Another, who had Spergel as her senior thesis adviser, said she appreciated how even though her project explored dance and physics, Spergel was able to help her pursue a cross-disciplinary idea. "He immediately expressed support for my creative idea," wrote the student. "He has connected me with physicists, choreographers, psychologists, science historians and educators, to name a few. Professor Spergel's large-scale view and small-scale practicality make him not only a world-class physicist, but also a world-class adviser."