Four Princeton University faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, June 6.
They are: Ruha Benjamin, assistant professor of African American studies; Robert Kaster, the Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature and professor of classics; Howard Stone, the Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and department chair; and Stacy Wolf, professor of theater in 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 their departments each receive $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.
Ruha Benjamin, a faculty member since 2014, is a sociologist whose work examines the connections between science, technology, medicine, race and gender. She is known for her interdisciplinary scholarship and her dedication to mentoring students.
A colleague described Benjamin’s wide-ranging impact: “[Her] commitment to excellence in teaching has touched undergraduates, graduate students and the broader community. She is truly a remarkable teacher, and having her as a colleague inspires me to push a little deeper, give a little more, when I step into the classroom.”
Benjamin is highly regarded for her commitment to advising graduate students across departments. "Professor Benjamin has served as a mentor for graduate students within the African American studies certificate program and beyond," noted a colleague. She was also the faculty convener of the African American studies graduate colloquium of 2015-16.
Undergraduate students cite Benjamin's courses as formative in their education and personal development. One student commented, "Professor Benjamin's enthusiasm, investment of time and energy, and thoughtful coordination of lectures and class activities made for a learning experience that not only inculcated important sociological principles, but also empowered me to use them in my daily life."
Among her popular courses are "Black to the Future: Science, Fiction and Society" and "Race is Socially Constructed: Now What?" Students have described her lectures as "amazing," "inspiring" and "nothing short of transformative."
One student noted Benjamin's lasting influence, "To this day, I still refer to her syllabi from the two classes I've taken with her."
Another undergraduate said, "Professor Benjamin became a role model to me because of her intelligence, dedication to her students, interdisciplinary study, emphasis on community engagement, and encouragement to her students to begin imagining a better future for our country and the world."
Robert Kaster, who has served on the faculty since 1997, is a widely known classicist specializing in Latin literature and language. A faculty member described him as "one of the most distinguished Latinists of his generation, [whose] work as an editor and a commentator has changed the map of Latin literature."
Kaster is admired for his continuing dedication to "Beginner’s Latin." Said a recent graduate student, "It seems remarkable to me now, as it did then, that a Latinist of his skill and standing should remain so passionate about introductory language instruction year after year."
A colleague noted, "[Kaster] genuinely cares as much about helping a beginning Latin student understand the uses of the infinitive as he does about any other aspect of his professional life."
Several of Kaster's graduate students have gone on to successful careers in the field. A current Ph.D. candidate highlighted Kaster’s "comprehensive" handouts on Latin literature for a seminar: "Through his meticulous readings of textual issues, summaries of cultural history, and eye-opening analyses of the emotional scripts at play in works of literature, [he] modeled a variety of ways in which to do scholarship."
Undergraduates value Kaster's individual attention. "Professor Kaster always makes students feel as though they are a priority," said a student.
One alumnus, who is currently pursuing a medical degree, said, "I can say easily, honestly and confidently that working with Professor Kaster on my senior thesis in 2009-2010 was the finest academic experience I have had to date.”
Howard Stone, who joined the faculty in 2009, studies fluid dynamics, particularly relating to engineering, chemistry, physics and biology. He is respected for his ability to elucidate difficult mathematical concepts, as well as for his commitment to mentoring.
A colleague described Stone as "a kind and caring educator who excels in bringing out the best in students, researchers, staff and colleagues."
Hundreds of undergraduate students enroll in Stone's course "Mathematics in Engineering I," an upper-level class on differential equations. A recent graduate student admired Stone's enthusiasm for the subject matter: "In the first meeting with all of the assistant instructors, [Stone] asked each of us how we felt about differential equations, and then informed us that he loved differential equations. [He] launched a discussion on why the subject was such a privilege to teach. This passion set the tone for the semester."
An undergraduate student commented: "Professor Stone's lectures were always incredibly clear, well-structured and engaging. What made [them] so effective was their emphasis on using systematic mathematical reasoning over rote memorization."
A current Ph.D. candidate, who has taken two courses with Stone, said, "What I learned from Professor Stone in those courses was not something that I could have acquired by reading a fluid dynamics textbook, not even a hundred textbooks."
Stone is highly regarded for his long-term commitment to mentoring. A recent alumnus, now a Ph.D. candidate, said: "Now that I work in the field and go to conferences I have met many of his protégés. I know firsthand that he views mentoring as a lifetime job."
Stacy Wolf, a faculty member since 2008, focuses on theater, especially musical theater. She has expanded Princeton's theater offerings by creating a certificate program in music theater, which she directs. She is also director of the Princeton Arts Fellowships.
A colleague said, "Dr. Wolf shows the highest possible commitment to teaching and to her students, and is both an extremely rigorous and wildly popular professor in the theater and musical theater programs."
A colleague noted that Wolf, in collaboration with Professor Susan Wheeler, "researched, organized and launched a new course called 'Intro to Art Making.'" With an initial enrollment of over 60 students, the course aims "at bringing students with minimal background in the arts into the pleasures and rigors of art making."
Wolf is committed to both creative and intellectual excellence. A recent graduate said: "She guided us through elements like musicality, staging, script and lyrics and showed us how to study them analytically. She ensured we saw at least one Broadway or off-Broadway show each semester, teaching us how to become educated theatergoers in the process. Professor Wolf also challenged our preconceived notions of how to learn. Most classes encourage students to sit down and listen. Professor Wolf encouraged us to move around — to sing, to draw, to interpret through movement.”
Said an alumnus, "[Wolf's] work at the Lewis Center has made it possible for students who love theater to integrate themselves in the Princeton community and to contribute to the arts after graduation, as professionals, patrons, or simple citizens of the world."