SJR Column: Faculty Excellence, March 2016

During any given week on the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois, a wide variety of engaging activities enliven the university. The first few days of March, 2016 offer typical examples: a Pulitzer Prize winning alum talking with students about his development as a journalist, the university chamber orchestra rehearsing for its upcoming spring showcase performance, student organizations holding a dance marathon to raise money for a local charity, the UIS recreation center hosting a high school basketball playoff, the Broadway show 42nd Street on stage at Sangamon Auditorium, the women’s softball team practicing for an upcoming contest.

All of these activities, and others, are valuable elements of what makes UIS a comprehensive university and a great community asset. However, our most fundamental work – what the University of Illinois mission statement predicts will “transform lives and serve society” – happens every day in classrooms and laboratories throughout the UIS campus. That work is teaching and it is provided by a truly extraordinary faculty. Allow me to introduce you to a few of my colleagues:

David Bertaina is a historian in the field of Comparative Religion who was recognized as the 2014 University Scholar, the UI’s highest honor awarded to exceptional faculty on each of the three campuses. Dr. Bertaina came to the profession naturally, he says. “My parents were both middle school teachers and I was shaped by many exceptional educators throughout my own school experience.”

Like many members of the UIS faculty, David teaches courses both on-campus and online. “I think of each class as a journey my students and I take together,” he says.

“Whether the topic is World Religions, Christian-Muslim Encounters, or Historical Methods, we’re always extending the conversation beyond the materials or the lecture. Students are gaining new knowledge at the same time they are working on transferable skills that will serve them beyond college and make them better human beings.”

Speaking of journeys, sometimes Dr. Bertaina’s course even involves a passport! A few years ago, he taught a class titled Empire and Faith of Rome in the Eternal City and he plans to teach another course abroad next year in Italy and Malta.

Nathan Steele, Associate Professor of Management, received this year’s UIS Pearson Award, presented annually to the professor whose performance best exemplifies the University’s commitment to excellence in teaching and who stands among the very best teachers on the UIS campus. Though Dr. Steele has been teaching Management courses including Organizational Behavior and Negotiation for ten years, his passion for teaching extends further back – he started by teaching Sunday school when he was in fifth grade.

“I enjoy taking students down the path of discovery for themselves,” says Nathan. “The satisfaction comes when a former student contacts you a year or maybe many years later and lets you know about the impact you had on their life or their career.”

Elizabeth Kosmetatou is the 2015 University Scholar and also a recipient of the Burks Oakley Award for Distinguished Online Teaching. An Associate Professor in the History Department, Dr. Kosmetatou grew up in Athens, Greece – always knowing that she would become an archeologist despite, she says, her father wanting her to study law as he had. Fluent in seven languages including Turkish, Elizabeth relishes opportunities to share her passion for ancient civilizations in courses like Egyptology and Animals in Antiquity.

“A great teacher is also a mentor who thinks beyond the specific class to explore how the material fits in the students’ programs and career plans,” she says.

“It is an ever evolving pedagogy that includes keeping abreast of developments and innovations in teaching, listening to the students, being open, and giving them individual attention.”

Jim Ermatinger, who has served as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIS for the past seven years, has an ideal vantage point for observing teaching excellence. “With more than 100 faculty in the College teaching hundreds of courses each year,” he reports, “I’ve seen the same signs of teaching excellence again and again. When students absorb the passion of their teacher, when they are engaged together, when careful planning provides structure and when technology is used to enhance learning, a transformative educational experience is created.”

That transformative experience is what David, Nathan, Elizabeth and many of their colleagues create for students every semester at UIS. That’s what Robert Spencer, founding President of Sangamon State University, imagined when the campus opened in 1970 with a “primary focus on teaching”. Especially given the challenging times for higher education in our state today, I know he would be pleased if he could see the campus today.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch