Four faculty members honored with awards

Faculty Awards 2018 (from left): Dean of Faculty Jon Western, professors Kathy Binder, Giuliana Davidoff, Calvin Chen and Becky Wai-Ling Packard, and Acting President Sonya Stephens

By Keely Savoie

The Mount Holyoke College annual Faculty Awards, which celebrate excellence in teaching and scholarship, were awarded to four professors at a ceremony on March 1.

“The celebration of the awards for outstanding faculty teaching and research honors four exceptional individuals among many,” said Acting President Sonya Stephens. “Though we must choose between their teaching and their research, each of our honorees exemplifies what it means to be a teacher-scholar, and models the excellence of the Mount Holyoke educational experience. What a joy it is to acknowledge their many contributions, and to hear them talk about their journeys and their work at the College.”

The faculty awards ceremony is an occasion for the honorees and their colleagues alike. The awards include a small cash prize but the focus is on celebrating the work and accomplishments of faculty.

"Faculty awards are an annual reminder of the extraordinary talent and intellect of our amazing faculty," said Jon Western, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. "It is an honor to recognize my colleagues for their contributions to the longstanding tradition of excellence in scholarship and teaching at Mount Holyoke."

The Meribeth E. Cameron Awards for Scholarship were awarded to Becky Wai-Ling Packard, professor psychology and education, and Katherine Binder, chair of psychology and education, chair of neuroscience and behavior, and professor of psychology. The scholarship awards were endowed by former trustee Janet Hickey Tague ’66 in honor of Meribeth E. Cameron, a professor of history who also held several administrative positions.

The two Mount Holyoke College Faculty Awards for Teaching, funded by an anonymous donor, were given to Calvin Chen, associate professor of politics, and  Giuliana Davidoff, Robert L. Rooke Professor of Mathematics.

The full citations are available.

Faculty awards for teaching

Calvin Chen, associate professor of politics

When Calvin Chen received the congratulatory phone call from Acting President Stephens, his first thought was that he “might be in trouble,” for a class simulation in which his students plotted a (theoretical) coup d’état against  the College. He wasn’t in trouble — he was being celebrated for his imaginative and ambitious teaching.

Chen is known as an excellent but tough professor. His students come by their grades honestly. Sally Ma ’18 has taken three classes with Chen, each of which has challenged her to grow beyond what she thought possible.

“He has very high expectations,” she said. “He teaches students to be open to new ideas, but to think about them critically, and most of all, to have ideas of their own.”

Chen likened his work to that of his hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi — to students who know him, his use of a Star Wars analogy will not be a surprise. Like Obi-Wan, Chen said, he teaches his pupils everything that he knows and recognizes that they are already becoming  far greater Jedis than he could ever hope to be.

“I am here to provide students with just the little bit of encouragement they need to reach their full potential,” he said. “Once that process begins to unfold, you just get out of the way.”

Giuliana Davidoff, Robert L. Rooke Professor of Mathematics

Giuliana Davidoff is universally praised for her genius and generosity, and both qualities are meticulously balanced in her teaching. Teaching math is a formidable task, but to Davidoff it’s a calling.

“Even when I was a math major in college, I enjoyed tutoring,” she said. “It was always something that I wanted to do.”

Davidoff’s teaching superpower lies in her belief in learning by doing — again and again if necessary. She lets her students retake tests, re-submit homework, re-do quizzes. Beneath the flexibility and patience is a pedagogical philosophy.

“One thing about mathematics is that the next class often depends on your succeeding in the one you are taking,” she said. “Students only have that shot at it and it’s my job to make sure that they learn it when they are sitting in my classroom.”

In more than 30 years, Davidoff’s teaching style has evolved to match the learning styles of her students.

“There have been a lot of changes in mathematical pedagogy, a lot less lecturing, more getting students engaged in conversation, working in groups in class,” she said. “Early in my career, a lot of professors subscribed to the idea that simply making it through a challenging class was an indication of success. But then there was a huge shift and the focus became not to kick people out of mathematics, but to get people to stay in it.”

But one constant remains: Davidoff’s knack for breaking down complex concepts into clear ideas. The trick, she said, is establishing a narrative arc.

“You have to find a way to build a natural progression of ideas — this one leads to the next one,” she said. “You want to make it more of a story than just a set of theorems and techniques that need to be learned.”

And her students are deeply appreciative. Even the students who were initially skeptical of learning math, who wound up in her class to fulfill a distribution requirement, laud her style.

One student credited her “elegant enthusiasm” and willingness to provide students with the opportunity to practice with reducing stress and making the daunting process of learning advanced math “more fun.”

“Professor Davidoff is brilliant,” read one student review. “So incredibly brilliant.”

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Awards for Scholarship

Katherine Binder, professor of psychology

When Kathy Binder (rhymes with “tinder”) arrived at Mount Holyoke as a lecturer in 1998, she didn’t expect to be celebrating her 19th year at the College with a faculty award for research, but it’s easy to see why she is: Binder embodies the Mount Holyoke commitment to academic research and community engagement.

At its core, Binder’s work focuses on a single question: How do people learn to read? It takes her students from her classrooms into the classrooms where those adult literacy learners are doing their work. While adult literacy had fascinated her from her days as a graduate student, she never thought of it as something she might pursue as part of her research career.

Binder uses eye-movement tracking technology and literacy theory to determine what skills and resources literacy students of all ages employ in learning to read, whether it is “phonemic awareness” — sounding out words as they are read — or how words and phrases gain meaning from the context in which they appear.

Binder learned that she had been honored with a faculty award when Acting President Stephens called her. The week prior, she noted, Stephens had called to congratulate her on being named the recipient of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair — “I hope she calls me again next week,” she said, with a smile.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard

Like her colleagues, Packard does not see a bright line between her research and its practical applications. A scholar of higher education and mentoring, Packard focuses on the structural elements (public policy, support networks) that can help — or hinder — access to higher education for populations that have been historically underrepresented: immigrants, people of color, non-traditional age students, first-generation students.

Packard doesn’t ask why these populations are not proportionately represented. Instead, she asks, “How can higher education become more accessible to them?”

Packard has written or co-written more that 30 articles, as well as a recent book on access to higher education.

“I am honored to be recognized with this award,” she said. “What is special about Mount Holyoke is we all care about our scholarship and teaching. I hope that I have raised the visibility of research focused on the progress of first-generation college students, working students, and community college transfer students in higher education. As a first-generation college graduate myself, the work is very meaningful to me.”

Packard is currently on scholarly leave to investigate climate, equity and inclusion initiatives with a focus on first-generation college initiatives.

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