2011 Faculty Awards: Q&A with James Knopp

April 28, 2011
By Bill Krueger

James KnoppThe Alumni Association will honor 18 NC State professors on May 5 for their outstanding work in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. We talked (via email) with some of the recipients about their work and the keys to being a successful professor.

Today we’re visiting with James Knopp, an associate professor and the undergraduate coordinator for the Molecular and Structural Biochemistry Department. Knopp is one of six faculty members recognized this year as Alumni Association Distinguished Undergraduate Professors.

What is the key to being a successful teacher? Some of the keys to being a successful teacher involve a deep understanding of the material that you wish to convey and an accurate appreciation of the capabilities and background of your students. Of course, the starting point is to be a scholar of the information. But a successful teacher should understand why that information is important for students to learn as well and be able to convey that to the students. It involves introspection in thinking back on how you as the previous student learned the material or in some cases really struggled with it. Then you construct the entire semester so that all of the parts, which may seem fragmented in isolation, will fit together at the end to finish with an integrated body of knowledge. But the most well-prepared course will be ineffective if it does not match the students. A successful teacher is aware of the level of preparation that the students have and the culture in which they inhabit. Being able to bridge the gap between the life experiences of a 40-year-old and students in their twenties is the challenge. You must speak their language.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? There are two things which bring me great satisfaction as a teacher. The first is the “ah, ha” moment when a student finally grasps the difficult concept or solves that tough problem. You know you have been able to raise that student to a higher level of understanding. The second comes much later when a former student returns to my office or writes an email. It is a source of great satisfaction to hear how I have influenced that student’s life, be it as simple as their appreciation for the increase in study skills or as complex as being the best student in their graduate or professional schools and how they uses the techniques that I have taught them to teach their peers. That is the true legacy of teaching.

Are there any particular professors or teachers who inspired you to become a teacher? Teaching is in my genes. Both sets of grandparents were teachers. It seems that I have always been teaching. As a high school student, I was tutoring and giving short talks in classes for my peers. In college and graduate school, I earned my way as a teaching assistant. One of my treasured gifts from my college professors was a simple old-fashioned beaker with the words “mother hen” written upon it.

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