Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Four Princeton University faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, June 3. 

They are: Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English; Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering; Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History; and Robert Sandberg, lecturer in English, theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts

The awards were established in 1991 through a gift by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen of the Class of 1950 and John Sherrerd of the Class of 1952 to recognize excellence in undergraduate 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. 

Gikandi, a faculty member since 2004, specializes in the history of the novel with a particular focus on postcolonial literature of Africa, India and the Caribbean. He also studies cultural and literary theory.

In the classroom, Gikandi is known for his deep engagement with students. "Never have I had a professor more invested in his classes and his students," wrote one undergraduate. Another student said, about taking the course "Postcolonial Cities:" What I found most striking about the way he conducts seminars, was the fact that he took intent notes on everything his students had to say. This drove us to contribute meaningfully."

Similarly, graduate students benefit from his thoughtfulness. A prospective student noted that Gikandi "deeply, carefully and intensely" responded to his writing sample even before that student decided to come to Princeton. Another student wrote about how Gikandi is a "responsive, encouraging and inviting adviser." Another noted, "I consider it an honor to be his student, and deeply admire not only his intellect but also his sense of justice and kindness."

Among his colleagues, Gikandi is valued for epitomizing "what is best about Princeton faculty, combining a stellar research record with a bone-deep dedication to students." A faculty member said that in his teaching, Gikandi touches on "profound questions of ethics, justice, art and freedom." 

Gmachl, a faculty member since 2003, is a specialist in optics, photonics and lasers, and is a pioneer in creating quantum cascade lasers for environmental and medical applications. 

A faculty member noted that Gmachl has "distinguished herself in all aspects of teaching: in-class teaching, innovation in course development, mentoring of students all the way from high school to graduate students, with special efforts towards mentoring women and underrepresented minorities."

Another colleague described how Gmachl goes beyond teaching successful courses related to optics and lasers to introducing topics of broader interest. For example, her lab course "New Eyes for the World" was created for non-science and non-engineering majors to learn how optics "can be used for applications from electronic communication to pollution and medicine." Gmachl also introduced a course on ethics for graduate students in electrical engineering, which now has expanded across the departments in the engineering school. 

Gmachl is highly regarded as a mentor. One former graduate student starting a career as an engineering professor cited among her qualities "consistent availability for one-on-one meetings" and her "unique ability to motivate each student to grow as a scientist." An undergraduate who has worked closely with Gmachl on research projects said, "I am sure that no one does it better than Claire when it comes to making sure that undergrads in her lab have an enjoyable, very real and scientifically meaningful experience."

Grafton, who has served on the faculty since 1975, is a scholar of Renaissance Europe and the history of science. A celebrated teacher, the letters nominating Grafton for the award attest to his "conscientiousness," "nurturing character" and "rigorous standards as a classroom teacher and an adviser." Grafton is known as a "leading spokesman for the teaching of the humanities." 

Grafton's students appreciate his enthusiasm and warmth. Noted a graduate student: "A visit to his office is the best cure for grad school blues. Everyone I know, whether grad student or junior faculty, leaves his office feeling refreshed and inspired and with a renewed commitment to the task at hand as well as to the greater project of scholarship." Recalling the arrival of a Gutenberg Bible in a session of "History of the Book," a graduate student said, "Those two hours that followed — as he brought us through the details of how the Gutenberg Bible came to be — remain in my mind a model of how to convey difficult technical information in a lucid and structured manner."

Colleagues commended Grafton for his "intellectual generosity" and emphasis on collaboration. One faculty member, describing Grafton as a "walking university," said, "we always felt blessed when we could find a place on his dance card, since every department was competing for his erudition, wit and dynamism."

Undergraduate students credited Grafton for opening their eyes to new ideas in class and beyond. Noted a student, "To enter his classroom is to enter another world, one where books and ideas and great thinkers live eternally and commune with one another for your benefit; to leave his classroom is to take that world with you." 

Sandberg, a 1970 Princeton alumnus, has been teaching playwriting, acting and dramatic literature at the University since 1995. 

Students described the important role Sandberg has played as teacher and mentor. One undergraduate who got to know Sandberg through a production of "Uncle Vanya" said, "I feel that I have found a friend and a mentor who I can always reach out to for support or just someone to talk to." Another student said: "I have learned so much from his classes and from his character. Sometimes his quietness may mask the resonance of his spirit. He genuinely connects with any and every student who wishes to connect with him."

Colleagues noted that Sandberg has helped well-known theater professionals learn about their craft through his "Beginning Playwriting" course. Wrote one faculty member: "Whether teaching the great plays of the past ... or dealing with freshly minted student plays, Bob is totally committed to the craft of writing plays. ... Part of that mentoring involves seeing nearly all the plays produced on campus — a Herculean feat!" Added another, "Bob approaches theater and performance studies from a place of deep commitment and caring."

Sandberg is also a "curricular innovator" — for example he collaborated with a colleague to create an undergraduate course focused on non-Western drama, and he is developing a seminar for the fall exploring controversial plays that "address issues central to the lives of young adults."

The numerous letters from alumni nominating Sandberg for the award emphasize his role as mentor. One former student who was advised by Sandberg for his senior thesis, an original play, wrote, "He is the single-most important, most grounding, most inspiring, most wonderful mentor I have ever had."