April 19, 2010

Brown wins core curriculum teaching award

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- For R. Michael Brown, assistant professor in the Department of History at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, “Take them as they come,” is a guiding principle and a crucial theme in his teaching philosophy.

Brown is this year’s Outstanding Faculty Member Teaching in the University Core Curriculum. The annual honor, one of SIUC’s Excellence Through Commitment awards, goes to a faculty member who teaches at least one of the broadly based foundation courses required of all University students to graduate.

In his “Statement of Teaching Philosophy,” Brown explains that “Take them as they come,” was advice and encouragement he received from a senior colleague at the small liberal arts college where he began his collegiate teaching career. Students at that college were often the first in their families to attend college and were not always as prepared for immediate college success as their professors might have liked. Brown learned to “take them as they come” and found that collegiate teaching and a nurturing manner need not be mutually exclusive.

Today, at SIUC, he said the demographic is different and the students often better prepared -- but “take them as they come” remains his charge as he approaches his core classes. Brown teaches both sides of World Civilization in the Department of History, courses that fulfill core curriculum requirements. Students in those classes, therefore, are often not history majors. In fact, some of them tell Brown directly that history is not their favorite subject -- and those are the students who use tact. Brown “takes them as they come,” even those queasy about history, and presents the chronological view of the world in an engaging, challenging and yet personal way.

Robbie Lieberman, chair of the history department, noted in her letter nominating Brown for the award, that teaching both sides of the world civilization courses is extraordinarily difficult, requiring, as it does, mastery of “an enormous amount of material” and the ability to present it to students who might have very little experience with in-depth examinations of history.

“Professor Brown meets students where they are, but then pushes them to way beyond that starting point,” she wrote. “He is thus able to achieve both of the goals expressed in his teaching philosophy, cultivating ‘capable and engaged scholars’ and helping students ‘transition successfully in to the larger university setting.’” She noted in particular Brown’s willingness to engage different learning styles by varying his teaching style throughout the semester.

Brown’s student evaluations reflect the appreciation his students have for his efforts on their behalf. His graduate teaching assistants seem to feel the same appreciation, Lieberman said. She pointed out that two of the graduate students who wrote letters supporting Brown have each won the department award for outstanding teaching assistant and were nominated for University-wide awards.

Cyrelene Amoah-Boampong, a graduate teaching assistant, noted that Brown was not only available to his students beyond his regularly scheduled office hours, but that he also urged students to try different learning strategies to help them cope with difficult material.

Deborah Wilson, another graduate teaching assistant, noted Brown’s diverse teaching methods and inclusion of different media for different learning styles. She especially praised his ability to connect with students, noting that he always takes student questions seriously and that he “brings in a wealth of information that is not included in the textbooks, and often finds a humorous way to present it.”

Former student Charles Williams referred to the way Brown helped the students unify diverse information around a central theme -- he used the coffee trade, for example, to help explain the spread of culture during the early modern period.

Brown earned his doctoral degree at the University of Georgia. He earned a VisionQuest Course Development Grant for “African Spirituality” while teaching at Dillard University, and a grant for a “Faculty/Student Collaborative Research Project” there as well.

At SIUC, he serves on a number of boards and committees as well as on graduate student exam committees. He has mentored several students through upper division individualized instruction. A member of several professional organizations, including the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora, the Caribbean Studies Association and the African Studies Association, Brown includes African-based spiritual cultures in the African-Atlantic Diaspora and Colonial and Post-Colonial Atlantic Ocean basin historical and cultural development in his research interests.

SIUC Chancellor Samuel Goldman will host a dinner honoring Brown and other recipients of Excellence Through Commitment awards on Tuesday, April 20, in the SIUC Student Center.