Teaching is like a musical performance: You have to know the material, and you have to know how to capture your audience.
Kenyon recognizes two top professors for their efforts each year with the Trustee Teaching Excellence Awards. This year’s awards were given to Irene López, associate professor of psychology, as a junior faculty member, and Jay Corrigan, professor of economics, as a senior professor.
Students and other faculty nominate the winning professors. The Alumni Bulletin caught up with this year’s stars to ask them their strategies for excellent teaching.
López came to Kenyon in 2007 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Rutgers University through the National Institute of Mental Health. She is a clinical psychologist who studies psychopathology through a cross-cultural and feminist lens. In addition to psychology courses, she also teaches for the women’s and gender studies and Latino/a concentrations.
Some students refer to you as their toughest teacher. What are your expectations?
I start every class off with very high expectations that I try to make clear and precise with no ambiguity. The reason for the high expectations is that I think it’s a privilege that they’re here. I often tell students that someone is paying really good money for them to be here, whether that’s their mama, their daddy, an auntie, the government. I feel it’s my duty to give them a solid education.
Was it always your goal to teach?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I think it’s because teachers were basically my other set of parents. I lived in a really dangerous environment — high poverty, high crime, a lot of insecurity. But school was always a safe place. I had teachers who really believed in me. And I felt validated in school.
Do you have a favorite class that you’ve taught or one that you always look forward to teaching?
I love two: abnormal psych and cross-cultural psych. Cross-cultural because I just love expanding peoples’ ideas of what is considered appropriate behavior. And I love abnormal psych because it helps break down a lot of stereotypes of people who have distress.
You’ve received a number of awards — the Harvey F. Lodish Junior Faculty Development Professor in the Natural Sciences and a faculty fellowship by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education — but you were very emotional when you won this one on Honors Day. Why?
I just felt so lucky. I felt so blessed. It’s really easy to complain about workload. It’s really easy to feel put upon. It’s a constant struggle I have because on the one hand I’m very ambitious. But at the same time, I’ve gotten far more than my share. To have that moment when a group of students thought about me was amazing. I felt like what I do matters.
Corrigan joined Kenyon in 2002 after completing his doctorate at Iowa State University. His areas of interest include environmental and resource economics, agricultural economics, public sector economics and economic education.
Your students say you are a dynamic and high-energy lecturer. How do you prepare for class?
I have embarrassingly detailed lecture notes, several feet of binders. They’re color-coded — red is for speaking points, black is what I’m going to write on the board. Sometimes we draw very complicated graphs in economics, and so I have those color coded by what lines I’m going to draw first. I have notes about what went well and what went poorly in past years so I can try to rework some of the things that went badly. I’d like to think that it’s gotten better over time.
You do a lot of cold calling in class. How do you do that without making students nervous—or are you trying to make them nervous
There are about a third of students who are very active, very willing participants in class. A third of students say something occasionally. Then another third of students say nothing at all. That is clearly their preference.
But I think it is important that everybody be called upon to speak up now and then. I know that in life after college you will sometimes be called on with very little preparation to summarize some point or to defend your argument. And so I do my best to call on everyone in the class.
What happens when a student can’t answer a question?
To be honest, it doesn’t happen that often. But sometimes students have done their utmost to prepare, but the material is hard and they don’t quite get it. And that can be really useful. It’s actually sometimes very instructive when people make those common errors. I can say, “I can definitely understand why you would think that. Let’s think about why that would be such a natural thing to think, and let’s think about why that is perhaps not the right answer.”
Do you have a favorite class that you teach?
Probably “Principles of Microeconomics.” When I was a graduate student, I was talking to one of the people who routinely taught that class. He said he knew that many of his colleagues did not particularly like teaching that class. And he couldn’t understand that. These are the fundamentals of the discipline. Who would not enjoy teaching students the fundamentals of the discipline? I’ve always tried to remember that.