by Gary B. Cohen, chair
The University of Minnesota History Department has for decades prided itself on the scholarly achievements and renown of its faculty. Yet time and again the very same colleagues who have won accolades for their research have earned the highest distinctions for their teaching and advising. During this past year, we were particularly proud that Erika Lee won the Arthur "Red" Motley Exemplary Teaching Award in the College of Liberal Arts; Thomas Wolfe, the University of Minnesota Council of Graduate Students (COGS) Outstanding Faculty Award; and Kirsten Fischer, the Horace T. Morse - University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Undergraduate Education.
Students themselves nominate faculty for the Motley and COGS awards. Erika Lee, who teaches for both the History department and the Asian American Studies program, is an extraordinary mentor to large numbers of students, an inspiration to colleagues in her use of information technology and active learning methods in the classroom, and a creative force in academic programming at the University. Her dynamic and innovative courses in immigration history, modern U.S. history, and Asian American studies speak to the experiences of a growing number of people in Minnesota and at the University. One student wrote glowingly that Lee's classes "inspired me to pursue a degree in Asian American studies, and it was her interest in me as an individual that greatly helped me on that path."
Thomas Wolfe has a devoted following among students as well. The graduate students who nominated him for the COGS award singled out his creative teaching methods and his "uniquely dedicated, compassionate, and individualized approach to mentoring students throughout their graduate education. Approaching each graduate student as his equal, Professor Wolfe continually engages his students in reflective conversations that help them forge their own individual path." In recent years Wolfe has made a particular mark with his innovative teaching of The Scope and Methods of Historical Studies. Introducing graduate students to the professional practice of the discipline in a one-semester course is a challenging assignment, but Wolfe approaches it as an opportunity not only to delve into the methods and analytic approaches of history but into the entire world of scholarship.
The Morse - Alumni Association award is the highest honor for undergraduate teaching and advising given by the University. Kirsten Fischer has garnered high praise for her talent, dedication, and passion as a teacher, adviser, and educational leader. She brings to her teaching obvious respect for students, a highly interactive teaching style, and a prowess for presenting material in a fair and unbiased way, even when discussing highly sensitive topics in the history of American politics, religion, and culture. In taking up such issues, she motivates students to think critically about controversial issues. "Her leadership by example, enthusiasm, creativity, and relentless dedication ... taught me some of the most valuable lessons about learning and research that I have yet received," says a former student. Another student notes, "she has a way ... where she can push you in the right direction, without being overly harsh--but more important, without merely leaving you without any direction at all."
Under the pressures of the daily routine, it is all too easy to overlook the great talents and accomplishments of the friends and colleagues we see every day in our offices and classrooms. The high honors won this year by Erika Lee, Thomas Wolfe, and Kirsten Fischer remind us of what giants we have among us teaching and advising students in our courses.