Five graduate students celebrated for excellence in teaching

The Graduate School has honored five graduate students for its annual Teaching Awards in recognition of their outstanding abilities as teachers.

The awardees are Thomas Beck from the Department of Mathematics, Simon Cullen from the Department of Philosophy, Sili Deng from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, George Laufenberg from the Department of Anthropology, and Jane Manners from the Department of History. Winners were selected by the dean of the Graduate School and the associate dean for academic affairs.

On April 29, the Graduate School presented the awards at the Tribute to Teaching Reception, and Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni hosted the event. Each winner will receive $1,000.

Beck is a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics, and he came to Princeton after earning bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics at the University of Cambridge in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Beck is being recognized for his work as an assistant in instruction for MAT 104, "Calculus II," last fall. David Gabai, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Mathematics, wrote in his nomination letter that Beck is "an outstanding teacher and is seen as easily approachable by his fellow graduate students." Lecturer in Mathematics Christine Taylor added, "When I observed Tom Beck last fall teaching … Calculus II, I was astounded to find a novice who was already a master teacher." Taylor described Beck's lectures as "very clear and enlightening," and noted that "he always made his expectations for the class and exams very explicit and clear." One sophomore offered the following sentiments: "I am very thankful to have been in Tom's section of MAT 104. He is an exceptional teacher who went to great lengths to make sure that we were all getting as much out of the class as possible." Another student said: "The job of a lecturer is a difficult one — it is a combination of covering the desired breadth of material and conveying the requisite depth to each student. … Not all teachers possess the ability to balance the requirements of the curriculum with the demands of their students, but Thomas Beck is certainly among the ranks of those who do." Beck expects to complete his Ph.D. in 2015.

Cullen is a fifth-year graduate student in philosophy and received his undergraduate philosophy degree in 2007 at the University of Melbourne, where he learned the "argument mapping" approach to philosophical analysis. He is receiving a Teaching Award for his work as an assistant in instruction for the freshman seminar "Philosophical Analysis With Argument Mapping." In his nomination letter, Professor of Philosophy Adam Elga said: "Simon approached me last year with the idea of helping to teach a seminar at Princeton that would take advantage of argument mapping in order to teach philosophy. (He) was extremely persuasive, and has been most essential to the development of the … seminar." Elga added, "By the end of the semester, I could tell that the students were not only grateful for the help Simon had given them, but were also fully invested in the course as a result of his input." One student commented: "He truly cares about our experience in this freshman seminar. Cullen continually asked for and, more importantly, responded to our feedback." Another student added: "Simon went to great lengths to enrich our experience in the seminar, including creating half-hour-long YouTube videos in which he went through passages from homework and mapped them, talking us through the process so we could improve our own mapping skills. In class, he exhibited such passion for philosophy during discussions and spurred excitement and emotion among students who ardently defended their positions." Cullen expects to complete his Ph.D. in fall 2014.

Deng is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and she earned her bachelor's degree in thermal engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2010. Deng is being recognized for her work teaching "Energy Conversion and the Environment: Transportation Applications." Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Michael Mueller wrote: "To say that Sili was an outstanding AI (assistant in instruction) in my course is a severe understatement. She demonstrated an unprecedented dedication to the course and the students that I have never seen as a student, AI or instructor throughout my academic career." One student commented, "The precepts were unfortunately scheduled in the hour we usually used for lunch, but despite this fact and even though the precepts were not mandatory, almost everyone in the class attended Sili's precept due to the value that they held for us." Another student added: "On the occasions when I went to her office hours, she sat with me individually and walked me step-by-step through an example problem until I understood what was happening conceptually and could relate the concept back to the original question — and then she would repeat the process with another student. I have never had an AI so invested in our success in a course." She expects to complete her Ph.D. in 2016.

Laufenberg, a seventh-year graduate student in anthropology, received a bachelor's degree in writing seminars from Johns Hopkins University in 1999 and a master's in communication from Georgetown University in 2004. He is being honored for his work as a Quin Morton Teaching Fellow in the Princeton Writing Program, where he was the co-creator of the writing seminar "American Mysticism." His research interests — on the spiritual traditions of U.S. mental health professionals and their work with a native North American tribe and the larger health care structure — motivated him to design the "American Mysticism" course, which invites students to analyze our cultural understanding of the relationship between truth and experience. "George's teaching finds an appreciative audience among his students; his fall 2013 teaching evaluations for overall seminar quality averaged 4.58, which markedly exceeds both the University average and the Writing Program average," said Amanda Irwin Wilkins, director of the Princeton Writing Program, in her nomination. One student wrote: "I really felt comfortable and was able to learn how to properly participate in a classroom while taking this class. The classes were always fun (and) interesting and I always learned something new. The workshops really assisted me as a writer to know what is expected of me." Another student simply said, "George was a great professor and I'm so glad I was in his class!" Laufenberg expects to complete his Ph.D. in fall 2014.

Manners, a third-year graduate student in history, earned her bachelor's degree in American history and literature from Harvard College in 1997 and her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2009. She was a preceptor for the course "American Legal Thought," taught by Hendrik Hartog, the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty. Wrote Hartog: "The course was hard for us all. It was the first time it was offered. I have never before tried to teach such difficult material to undergraduates and Jane was fantastic. How fantastic she was is marked by the class evaluations for her. She received all 5s (without any exception) in both of the precepts she led, a feat rarely achieved." Hartog added: "Her qualities went beyond what the evaluation forms can reveal. She helped me enormously in constructing the syllabus for this new course, and in talking through what we expected students to get from the readings. … She held students to very high standards, but she also made them feel entirely invested in the enterprise of writing and talking about legal thought." One sophomore wrote, "Throughout the course of the semester, Mrs. Manners led precept in the most engaging, thought-provoking, organized and educating manner that I have seen thus far at Princeton." Another student said: "As an instructor she proved herself both demanding and encouraging, caring and critical." Manners expects to complete her Ph.D. in 2017.