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November 18, 2010

Alan Swinkels Named Texas Professor of the Year

Receiving the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching / Council for Advancement and Support of Education 2010 Texas Professor of the Year Award is a great honor.  It's staggering to know that I was selected from a large field of what I'm sure are all excellent educators, and it's exciting to think that a small portion of what we do at St. Edward's can be shared with a national audience.

Winning this award has also given me pause to reflect on an obvious and somewhat dull conclusion: I teach a lot.  That's not so surprising for someone whose passion has led him to be a professor in a liberal arts environment.  What is surprising, though, is the many forms that "a lot" has taken over the years.

Objectively, I've taught a lot of courses.  Like a drummer in a very predictable rock band, I've done 4/4 my entire career; that's four course offerings each and every semester.  It started when I was a Visiting Professor at Loyola Marymount University.  The tenure-track faculty taught a 3/3 load, but the trade-off for my not having other obligations – research expectations, committee work, advisees – was that I picked up an extra course each semester.  Some might substitute "penalty" for "trade-off" in that previous sentence, but I always saw it as an opportunity rather than a burden.  Being responsible for lots of different course preparations gave me the chance to immerse myself in areas outside of my direct expertise, to investigate best practices in teaching different kinds of material, and to develop a sizeable repertoire of courses that I was prepared to teach with short notice.  When I came to St. Edward's University, that preparation paid off.  St. Edward's has historically had a 4/4 load for its tenure-track faculty, and when that was raised in my job interview, I didn't bat an eye; it's all I've ever known!  Teaching a lot, therefore, allowed me to sharpen my skills in the classroom at probably a faster rate than is typical.  I learned what worked and what didn't, how to really connect with students, and how to distill a large body of knowledge into a semester's worth of coherent instruction.

I've also taught in a lot of different ways.  It never made sense to me that professors stuck with the tried and true – reading aloud from a podium – across all learning situations.  I've thought critically about adopting the best methods for the best instruction in a given situation, and that's led me to a variety of teaching strategies.  All of my courses involve active learning, but that sometimes takes the form of direct experience in a lab section, a field trip to see how psychology gets applied in a business, collaborative group work where students get to learn from one another, or demonstrations in which students have to predict what will happen before it does.  There's usually an easy way out in most teaching situations; just tell the students what they should learn and watch them write it down.  But I've always preferred the challenge of structuring course material in a way that allows real understanding to take place.

I've also taught through a lot of different avenues.  It's clear that "good teaching is good teaching," but I would hasten to add that "good advising is good teaching," just as "good research is good teaching."  I've embraced all those opportunities to help students learn, and been honored to receive substantial recognition in each of those areas.  It's sometimes taken some effort; I developed the first advising feedback form used at my university, so that students could report what they found more or less helpful during advising sessions.  I also secured the first laboratory space and equipment for students and faculty to use at our "teaching comes first" university, so that we could all better realize that teaching also can come from research collaborations with undergraduates.  Various advising and research awards that I've received over the years are a gratifying affirmation that I can reach students outside of a classroom environment.

Finally, I guess "a lot" also implies "to a lot of people."  A little math tells me that 20 years of teaching at least 8 courses to 25-35 students per course results in…a pretty large number of people who've sat in my classrooms.  I know that the majority of them have found cause to rely on some nugget of knowledge they've picked up from me.  E-mails from graduates working in government, industry, law, and of course psychology, relating how they've integrated information from my courses, are a nice confirmation that my teaching is affecting people's lives in a positive way.  But I've been very fortunate to have an impact on an inestimable number of undergraduates as well.  My work creating instructional materials for numerous textbooks by numerous publishers has, with the advent of the Internet, allowed countless students to access study guides, review questions, web-based tutorials, and other materials to help them master what they're learning.  This work has also allowed my teaching tips, classroom demonstrations, video suggestions, and instructional approaches to be used by countless professors…many of whom, like I once did, may be staring down their first 4/4 load and wondering where to begin.

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