Kent State’s Alumni Association announced the recipients of this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award, which recognizes outstanding professors with a $1,500 endowment.
“From an Alumni Association perspective, it’s very important to us to recognize academic achievement in the classroom,” said Elizabeth Slanina, assistant director of alumni relations.
The award, which has been in place since 1967, is available to tenured professors who have been employed by any of the Kent State campuses for at least seven years.
“Alumni tell us stories of professors they remember, and that lasts a lifetime,” Slanina said. “We know that faculty make a huge, huge difference on our students and that carries on into their lives.”
The three Distinguished Teaching Award recipients will be honored Nov. 3 at the University Teaching Council luncheon.
Associate professor, management and information systems
Indian-born Murali Shanker, who has worked at Kent State since 1990, describes his classroom style as “teaching chaos.” A combination of humor and empathy, he said, keep him attuned to students’ needs, especially those of students who may not fully understand the material covered in class.
Shanker, who described himself as a terrible student while an undergraduate, said he understands what it’s like to be confused about class materials. By encouraging students to ask questions and providing in-class lectures in the form of podcasts, Shanker said he hopes to reach students who might otherwise struggle.
“In some ways, I can empathize and find different ways of teaching so they understand it,” he said. “That’s what drives me. I know what it was to go through school and have somebody who I understood nothing of.”
Although he never intended to become a professor, Shanker said he was drawn to teaching while working as a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota.
“I never came to teach,” he said. “It was just an accident that I discovered I liked teaching. You go into it thinking you’re going to do X, and you ending up doing Y.”
He is “pleasantly shocked” by the Alumni Association’s decision to name him a Distinguished Teacher, but Shanker said he will continue to strive for his own standards of educational excellence.
“It’s just saying that, OK, at least I am on the right path, and that’s more of what it is a validation of than anything else,” he said. “I’m nowhere close to being accomplished.”
Associate professor, art
Sculpture professor Isabel Farnsworth said she hopes students think of her as someone who takes them seriously and gets to know them as individuals.
“The thing that excited me about teaching was that I would be engaged in making art and also working with students,” she said.
Farnsworth began teaching art classes at Kent State 10 years ago after moving to Ohio from San Francisco. Although happy to call Kent her home now, she spent her first four years living in Cleveland and enjoying the downtown art scene.
Even so, Farnsworth is still active in the art scene. She devotes a large amount of her personal time to helping organize exhibitions of her students’ work, such as The Ice House exhibition in Akron where students actually produce the exhibition.
Aside from showcasing students’ work, Farnsworth believes the best gift she can give her students is a solid knowledge of both the history and basics of sculpture.
“It’s critical to give students the foundation, so then they have the language to do sculptures and find their voices in art,” Farnsworth said.
Outside of the Kent campus, Farnsworth enjoys spending time with her 20-month-old son and working in her art studio in Mogadore, which she shares with her husband, Sean Mercer, a glass professor at Kent State.
Farnsworth said she was pleased but surprised when she received the Distinguished Teaching Award.
“There’s so many faculty on campus that deserve this award, so I feel really happy that I received it,” she said. “It’s a kind of confidence that what I am doing is effective.”
Associate professor, family and consumer studies
As an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, Rhonda Richardson decided she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the developmental psychology professor who fueled her love for human development and family studies.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love,” said Richardson, who spends her spare time with family and plays the fiddle in a Celtic music group.
Richardson said she cares about her students and wants to see them succeed, which she tries to do by engaging her classes in real-world scenarios throughout the community. To expand their knowledge outside the classroom setting, her students teach county-wide parenting education workshops and design their own special-interest projects.
“Making the course content come alive for students engages them in learning,” she said.
Inspired by her students’ enthusiasm, Richardson said she cherishes the phone calls and e-mails she receives from former students who tell her they’ve used what she taught them in real-life situations.
She said she feels honored to become a recipient of the prestigious Distinguished Teaching Award.
“To know that students value my teaching enough to take the time to submit a nomination is really meaningful,” she said. “And to join an impressive group of previous DTA winners is very humbling.”