April 01, 2009

Kim Harris named SIUC’s outstanding teacher

by K.C. Jaehnig

Kim Harris
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Agribusiness economist Kim S. Harris has won Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s 2009 Outstanding Teacher award.

The honor, part of the University’s "Excellence Through Commitment Awards Program" established in 2004, carries a cash prize and professional development funds, a certificate, the title of “Distinguished Teacher,” parking for a year and a watch provided by the SIU Alumni Association.

Harris and the program’s other winners will be recognized at a dinner hosted by Chancellor Samuel Goldman on Tuesday, April 21, at the Student Center.

Harris, an associate professor, also was named the campus’ top teacher in 1991. He teaches five undergraduate courses, two of which he created and all of which draw well. Last year alone, he taught some 250 students. He consistently garners top marks for his ability to inspire and motivate majors and non-majors alike, whether they are just starting out or are nearly done with their degrees.

Harris is perhaps best known for the agricultural sales course he developed.

“Before Dr. Harris began teaching his sales course, agribusinesses were not hiring many College of Agricultural Sciences graduates for sales positions because students had a negative attitude toward sales,” wrote departmental chairman Steven E. Kraft in a letter supporting Harris’ nomination.

“Dr. Harris has completely turned that around. His sales course is so popular that it typically fills to capacity within the first two days of advanced registration. Companies (including Bayer Crop Science, Dow Agrosciences, Du Pont Ag Products, John Deere, Merck, Monsanto, Mycogen Seed and Syngenta) now eagerly compete for his students.”

Harris uses experience-based activities to make the course come alive for his students. Adventure-style team-building exercises immerse them in challenging situations that demand initiative, risk-taking, problem solving and teamwork, while spending a day “shadowing” professional sales staff gives them first-hand knowledge of the opportunities and frustrations involved in the field.

“My responsibility is motivating students to learn,” Harris wrote in summarizing his teaching philosophy.

“Since motivation is a natural outcome of relevancy…whenever possible I move learning from the textbook into the ‘real’ world, applying theories and concepts to situations.”

In his advanced agribusiness management course, Harris draws on case studies to hone students’ decision-making skills. Divided into groups of three, the students draw upon knowledge gained in other classes to run a virtual farm supply store, deciding on pricing, purchases, inventory management and personnel policies. Harris serves as the stores’ board of directors, evaluating how well the students meet their business targets.

In some ways, this echoes the “learning behavior contract” students sign at the start of the semester: They set their learning goals, he provides feedback through the semester on how their classroom performances move them toward achieving those goals.

“I try to create a learning environment that motivates students to go further than they have ever gone before, creating enticements to learning instead of penalties for not learning,” Harris wrote.

“My responsibility is to keep their initial drive and enthusiasm for learning intact, or in some cases, to awaken a dormant curiosity, while thwarting students’ desire to be content with easy answers and marginal effort.”

To check the success of his teaching strategies, Harris solicits student feedback three times during each course, using the responses to fine-tune his approach. But he doesn’t stop there.

“Rather than rest on his laurels, Kim has continually adapted his classes to meet the changing demands of the industry,” wrote W. David Downey, executive director of Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business, in a letter supporting Harris’ nomination for the award.

“As a result, his students are in high demand throughout the Midwest from agribusinesses who want to hire well-trained and qualified salespeople.”

Outside the classroom, Harris has become the go-to adviser for between half and three quarters of his department’s students.

“He is much in demand to help students with an academic problem, to discuss interviewing skills and career opportunities, to review resumes, write letters of recommendation, discuss negotiation strategies or simply to lend an ear to a student who needs someone to talk to,” Kraft wrote.

Matt Payne, logistics manager for Heartland Barge Management in Columbia, credited Harris’ dedication and commitment to his students with helping him land a job.

“With his connections, I was able to interview for my current position of which I would have never known if it were not for him,” Payne wrote.

Jason Mills, a 2007 graduate who is now vice president of 1st Farm Credit Services’ Macomb branch, wrote that Harris guided students “down a path of learning that was suited to their goals and interests” and that his teaching and mentoring did not end just because the student had a diploma.

“Since I have graduated, Dr. Harris has still made himself very accessible and willing to offer his time,” Mills wrote. “In fact, I am still learning from him all the time.”

Harris, who joined the faculty in 1984 as an instructor, became an assistant professor in 1985 after completing his doctorate at the University of Illinois, where he also finished a master’s degree in 1980. He earned his bachelor’s in 1971 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Harris, his wife, Catherine, and children, Isaac and Isabel, live in Carbondale.