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  • 2020-08-31
  • Anna Loria

Q&A: Presidential Teaching Excellence Award Winners

The 2020 Presidential Teaching Excellence Award winners share their words of wisdom, teaching techniques, and sources of inspiration.

Five standout SUNY Brockport faculty members rose to the top out of 449 student-submitted nominations for the fourth annual Presidential Teaching Excellence Award.

Those winners — Assistant Professor of Education and Human Development Marium Abugasea Heidt, Professor of History John Daly, Assistant Professor of Nursing Uletha Jones, Professor of Computing Sciences Sandeep Mitra, and Assistant Professor of English Althea Tait — received a plaque and a $500 stipend toward professional development for the 2020–21 academic year.

Watch the video above to hear what students have to say about these influential educators, and read on for each of their reflections:

Knowing that your students nominated you for a Presidential Teaching Excellence Award, what does this recognition mean to you?

Abugasea Heidt: I am so grateful to my students for nominating me, and I was touched by their kindness in taking the time to enter a nomination on my behalf. My heart is truly full. With my courses being 100 percent online and asynchronous, my greatest hope has always been to build a sense of connection between students and with students in a class community — one just like they would have in a face-to-face course. The fact that this all came across in an online environment helps me to realize that we can build these important connections, even online, and model them for others.

Daly: It means everything. Winning the award is fantastic, but reading all those support letters is what it is all about. Even more than student evaluations, the award and letters showed me that my efforts are paying off in the classroom. The student letters were heartfelt. I learn so much from my students and get great support from them, so it was nice to see that they got the same from me.

Jones: I feel so honored and proud to be recognized by my students. It was very surprising to be nominated by advisees and senior nursing students.

Mitra: I feel deeply honored to learn that my students took the time to nominate me. I was hired by the Department of Computing Sciences at Brockport back in 1994 to primarily teach courses related to software engineering. Since then, I have investigated various pedagogical techniques for such courses, and I have written and presented about my experiences in teaching them at various discipline-specific conferences. I am glad to say that I have received a couple of "Best Paper" awards from the organizations that host such conferences. But of all the awards I have received, this is the one that I will value the most, as it comes from those who are the most important reason why I am a teacher.

Tait: Teaching African American Literature and culture is to, at times, teach for a world that does not exist. At a time in America when eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd’s life is etched on our cultural imaginations and memories, at a time when young and gifted black women such as Breonna Taylor — women who remind me of my students — are shot in their homes, at a time when our own students have again clamored for an anti-racist climate on our beloved campus in 2020, at this time, it is an honor to know that many of them have gleaned from the aesthetics, the piercing words, and haunting promises of some of our greatest American writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, or Angie Thomas. As my students come to know, if you come to the page with great interest to engage with this American narrative, you discover the cultural scar tissue we must heal. Also, they discover that within this specific narrative, there is a universal narrative — they discover portions of their own stories they faintly understood. They witness the resilience of a people as well as their own. They gather courage to help heal the deadly dystopia we see before us.

Who and/or what inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

Abugasea Heidt: I was inspired by some of my own professors during my undergraduate and graduate studies. They cared about me and pushed me to be my very best. They saw my potential, even when I didn’t, and encouraged me to pursue further studies and a career in higher education.

Daly: I loved my college professors, really all of them, and wanted to do for others what they did for me. They inspired and encouraged me and told me what work in a college and university could be. Also, historical thinking was a discipline that really helped me figure out life in college and answer deep questions. I like to pass that on.

Jones: While working in an intensive care unit, a colleague asked me if I wanted to be an adjunct clinical instructor for a semester. Thirteen years later, I still continue to enjoy teaching in higher education. 

Mitra: This is a very valid question for someone in my discipline, as most people who pursue a degree in computer science/software engineering opt for a career in industry, which is undoubtedly more lucrative, at least in terms of monetary compensation. When I began teaching at Brockport, I was not sure that I had made the right decision. During my initial years, I also discovered that it would be better if I had some extensive experience in the trenches of real-world software development that I could bring to my classroom. Without that, I was not providing my students with the kind of quality experiences that they had a right to expect in the courses I was teaching. Therefore, after my first five years at Brockport, I took a two-year leave of absence and worked in industry. While I liked my work in industry a lot, I realized at the end of the two-year period that I missed the human interaction in the classroom, the conveying of information to the students and seeing their eyes light up as they digest that information, and working with students one-on-one to help them apply their learning to solve real problems. I missed seeing people grow from apprehensive apprentices to seasoned professionals. Therefore, I decided to resume my teaching career.

Tait: I was a junior in high school when Mrs. Smith used her own funds to purchase copies of Toni Morrison’s the Bluest Eye for her students. I fell in love with what the ink in Morrison’s pen delivered. I tucked it away to pursue engineering, which I was convinced was more economical. Love won.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

Abugasea Heidt: I care about my students’ well-being first and foremost. That is the foundation with which to build a students’ education and a pursuit of their dreams. I try to make this care obvious, and I hope I am modeling it for them so that they can also have this care for their own students. This is what will stick with others throughout their education and lives.

Daly: I really care passionately about history and think it is important in all of our current lives. The first thing I try to do is get the students to care and see why history matters. That comes first. You will never remember the dates and names of the French Revolution until you really care about the French Revolution. And you should care about the French Revolution. I show students that whatever subject or idea they already care about is history. I love it when students come up with their own arguments and topics to explore.

Jones: My primary goal as an educator is student success. Students should feel safe and comfortable with the instructor enabling them to ask questions and seek clarification of course content. Students should feel that instructors are approachable and not feel intimidated to come to the instructor after class or during office hours to ask questions or express concerns.

Mitra: Given the nature of the discipline I specialize in, my approach to teaching involves facilitating extensive skill development. Therefore, I emphasize the importance of practical application of the material I present. Consequently, my classes almost always take a project-oriented approach. My students work with a team of their peers to apply concepts learned in class to a significant real-world problem, which is often obtained from, and solved in collaboration with, a community partner — ranging from large corporations in this area to small businesses that could enhance their productivity with a customized software product. With this approach, my goal is to prepare students who feel trained and capable to meet the challenges of a software engineer's job, and are confident that they can advance in the profession.

Tait: A marriage between theory and practice. I hail from a literary and critical tradition that stresses an understanding of the word. Of equal importance to this tradition is applying the word. You theorize and you practice theory. It is not enough to become a part of a discourse or contribute to it. The groups you are discussing and/or researching may lack access to the work; this possibility, more specifically, includes access to the meaning of the work. The work can be beautifully complex but it must be accessible to the people. I stress equality in scholarship and learning; the class time is unsuccessful if 40, 50 or 70 percent of the students comprehend the material. We must all have a working knowledge of the material (theoretical as well as fictional). We come to the text with great curiosity and with great humility, as the material reflects a body of empirical experiences often misunderstood or culturally dismissed. Because my students are outstanding human beings who want to re-read Frederick Douglass’s narrative or works that confront the cultural scar tissue of racial violence such as lynching or abuse of authority, great rigor is required in the research and writing: the subject matter demands it. And the beauty of the resistance found within the shape of the language, of the narrative, and of the sound (jazz, the blues, or Hip Hop) rewards us.

What words of wisdom do you have for the freshman class of 2024?

Abugasea Heidt: Build connections and persevere. Be open to other paths. Find what inspires you and where you can make a positive difference in our world.

Daly: Be excited to be alive in history, even in tough times. You are going to remake the world and make it better.

Jones: Beginning your college education during a pandemic will be challenging, but doable. Focus on your goals for the semester and use your planner to stay on track.

Mitra: College is going to be one of the best years of your life, where you will make some of the best friends who will be there for you for the rest of your life — both in the personal and professional spheres. So make the most of it; go out there and become part of the community. It will be one of the best investments you can make in yourself!

Tait: On a day that the sun is shining in Rochester, go to a nook where nature can hold you. Bring a pad. A pen. Imagine everyone you love is secure and healthy (even in this pandemic stricken world). Imagine you are debt free and unhindered by any other factor. Imagine you have $250,000.00 in the bank. What keeps you up joyfully until 4 am even though you have a critical appointment you must keep at 8 am? This activity must be something you know you are good at and do with great confidence. This is your passion. Discover a major that taps into this passion and become an apprentice. Become an apprentice of reading, probing, writing, or teaching a novel, of understanding the body and the ways it heals, of comprehending the fissures of a mind/soul and pathways of healing, of solving equations, of designing a product and patent, of honoring the humanity of those who work, or of teaching the next generation. Give yourself to the process with healthy abandonment.

What is your current research interest?

Abugasea Heidt: I love to learn about how others learn languages and to research best practices for language education. I love the fusion between learning and psychology (i.e., motivation and identity). They go hand in hand.

Daly: I have just finished researching and writing on Reconstruction in the United States (1865-1877) and how Reconstruction was a brutal civil war in its own right. Our current divided nation needs to avoid the horrors of that era. Next up is the history of science and moral philosophy in the era.

Jones: I am currently working on an Institutional Review Board-approved project titled "Using Reflective Journaling to Assess the Progression of Cultural Awareness & Competency in Undergraduate Health Care Students during an International Educational Experience." My hypothesis is that journals can be an effective tool to assess cultural competency in undergraduate students during their international experiences.

Mitra: Software Engineering Methodologies, with particular emphasis on how industrial-strength methodologies such as AgileTM can be adapted for instruction and use in the undergraduate classroom, particularly in small colleges like SUNY Brockport. I am currently working with a large IT employer in the area, some of our alumni, and some of my colleagues in the department on projects related to this area of interest. I am also interested in investigating software design techniques that facilitate both of the following: direct mapping of design models to executable program code and easy use in undergraduate student projects.

Tait: I am currently completing a co-edited book manuscript under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. I Die Daily: Black Bodies and the Force of Children’s Literature reveals the daunting disparities we face as a nation and, while heartbreaking, these issues return me to my parents’ influence in my life. Johnny Franklin and Frances Lee Tait stressed stewardship. If Life gives you a gift, an opportunity or something deserving or worthy of breath is before you, you must protect it, steward it. It could be an opportunity, a people group. In this case, we have not stewarded the vulnerable black lives that are a part of America. Stewardship requires intentional care and intentional discipline to become one who deepens the care. We do not have a hatred problem in our nation as much as we have a failure in stewardship. Like taking care of the earth, we are to take every opportunity to care for our children (whether they are Black, working class, or from south of the border) and what they symbolize to us as a people.

What continues to excite you about teaching?

Abugasea Heidt: I am excited about helping others achieve their goals and about helping others have fulfilling careers teaching others and touching students’ lives.

Daly: Everything! New students with new perspectives most of all. I had not taught Slavery in the South for five years before I taught it last year, and the students had so much to offer with new and sophisticated approaches to the subject. Even though I have taught the subject for 30 years, the class was completely fresh and exciting with today's students. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Jones: The way technology is consistently changing. I love using technology in the classroom to enhance student learning experiences. But I do look forward to being face-to-face with students again.

Mitra: Enabling student success. It really makes your day when a student who you taught comes up to you at Wegmans a few months after they graduated and tells you that they got their job thanks to what they learned in your classes and projects, and expresses gratitude for setting them on the right professional path. It is even more heartening when a former student emails you two years or more after they graduated and tells you that they got promoted, and that they owe where they are now in their professional life to you. It is the ability to impact people's lives positively this way that keeps the excitement in teaching.

Tait: I am a part of a celebratory legacy that dismantles a troubling legacy. When I enter a classroom, many of my students acknowledge they have never been taught by a Black woman. I bring with me a repertoire of readings spanning two centuries and my students have never read many of them. The works are life-changing in their description of the redemptive nature of art and of the complex Black human beings who resisted and usurped oppression. Like never before, we need these works of art, these narratives traced by human beings who defeated obstacles to speak “the unspeakable unspoken,” as Toni Morrison describes. Because of this encounter, they create and use language to illuminate and to heal wounds, even within themselves. My students, regardless of their identities, go into the classrooms, hospitals, courtrooms, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, the business world, government, and they draw from these deep spaces of midwiving courage, of standing alone, if need be, when honorable, of resisting injustices, of dismantling harmful systems and building new ones, and of conquering insurmountable odds. Further, Black scholars in the Academy, to use June Jordan’s words, are difficult miracles. This miracle is contagious. It strikes the imagination of minority students — they stand with me and eventually will replace me in the Academy. There is nothing more beautiful than a breathing miracle.

Last Updated 5/26/21

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