April 27, 2007

Komarraju wins Core Curriculum teaching honor

by K.C. Jaehnig


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CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Psychologist Meera Komarraju has been named Southern Illinois University Carbondale's outstanding Core Curriculum faculty member for her teaching of one of the broadly based foundation courses required of all University students to graduate.

She will receive $2,000 through SIUC's "Excellence Through Commitment Awards Program," set up in 2004 to reward ongoing contributions by tenured and term faculty, staff and graduate assistants throughout the University. She also receives a wristwatch provided by the SIU Alumni Association.

Komarraju and the program's other winners were honored Thursday, April 26, at a dinner hosted by interim Chancellor John M. Dunn in the University's Student Center.

Core Curriculum winners must demonstrate excellence in a specific area, such as innovative course design, thoughtful assessment strategies, effective communication skills or the ability to bring the curriculum's goals to life.

"Dr. Komarraju is a stellar nominee on all of these grounds," wrote Jane L. Swanson, chair of the psychology department, in a letter nominating Komarraju, who teaches Introduction to Psychology, for the award.

Colleague Stephen J. Dollinger, named the entire University's best teacher in 2001, described Komarraju as having a reputation for being "wonderful but demanding."

"Her teaching attitudes, behaviors and philosophy together comprise a style that is very conducive to students' learning about psychology in the classroom and engenders their interest in the discipline outside of class," he wrote in a letter supporting Komarraju's nomination.

"She does a fine job of integrating these elements of good teaching which, embodied with enthusiasm or that more ineffable 'spark' that creates special moments in class, makes her a great teacher."

Dollinger noted that Komarraju's course was well organized, user friendly, that the lectures and readings worked well together and that she had clear expectations of her students. She had good rapport with her class, eliciting a "remarkable amount of class participation in a packed auditorium seating over 250 students," he wrote.

Dollinger praised her "parallel use of the PowerPoint presentation and document projector, (with) the latter used as a kind of notebook, in effect modeling note taking of key points" as well as her use of organizers and practice test questions as reviews.

He also wrote that Komarraju used questioning of relevant social issues to teach students to think critically and that she clearly appreciated the students' "many thinking and learning styles."

Swanson underlined that Komarraju treated every student respectfully.

"Equally impressively, she convinces graduate students who serve as (teaching assistants) that they, too, need to treat students with respect, to not let one bad experience with a student sour their expectations about the student they will meet," she wrote.

Tyrel J. Starks, a doctoral student who was one of Komarraju's teaching assistants, wrote, "The way I present information, approach students and view my identity as a teacher have all been shaped in some way by my experience with Dr. Komarraju. (She manages the course) with a combination of compassion and fairness that I have come to view as a worthy standard for all instructors."

That compassion and fairness extend even to students who cheat. When one student turned in a paper identical to that of his classmate, Komarraju brought him in to meet with Swanson.

"She was respectful, firm and clear in describing the evidence to him,"Swanson wrote.

"She viewed the situation as another opportunity to teach, and she encouraged the student to teach other students about the dangers of plagiarism. I truly believe that he learned a very valuable lesson about integrity — his and hers."

Student evaluations show that her students respond.

"I feel like you care about each one of us," wrote one. Another wrote, "You come to class with a smile on your face and you talk to us as people." Wrote a third, "I like that you answer our questions. The best thing you have done is conduct our class as if it were a small classroom."

A letter that perhaps best sums up Komarraju's teaching came from Laura E. Tolar, a Carterville student who began her undergraduate career in 2003 as a math major. Tolar took the core course in psychology (and "did not care for it") but a year later changed her major to psychology and "never regretted it."

"I feel that one of Meera's best qualities, both as an instructor and a mentor, is her compassion," wrote Tolar, now a senior.

"The majority of her students are freshmen, and she has such a strong desire to see them succeed. She conducts the class with structure but is well aware that there are events which happen without warning even to the best of students and is always willing to do everything in her power to help the students make it through the course.

"The way she conducts the class is very beneficial to students, particularly freshmen who have never been to college. She shows them that college is about working hard, but that there are instructors like her who can make the course fun when given the chance.

"Meera conducts the teaching assistant seminars in the same fashion. She expects much from us, but she is also preparing us for real-world settings, making the opportunity to work for her, as a student or a teaching assistant, priceless."

Komarraju began her teaching career at SIUC in 1986 as a lecturer in both the psychology and management departments, becoming an assistant professor in psychology in 2005. She has a bachelor's degree, three master's degrees and a doctorate from Osmania University in India and a second doctorate earned in 1987 from the University of Cincinnati.

Caption: Top Core Curriculum teacher – Interim Chancellor John M. Dunn (left) congratulates psychologist Meera Komarraju, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s outstanding Core Curriculum faculty member for her teaching of one of the broadly based foundation courses required of all University students to graduate.

Photo by Steve Buhman