The Alumni Association is honoring 26 NC State professors with the 2014 Faculty Awards 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 D. Troy Case, an associate professor and director of graduate programs in anthropology. Case is one of seven professors being recognized as a Distinguished Undergraduate Professor.
What prompted you to become a professor? I’ve been interested in the research side of academia since I was a young child. My grandparents lived on an old sheep ranch, and I remember exploring the fields at age 6 or 7 and stumbling across some scattered sheep bones. I started collecting them and announced to my parents that I would find enough bones to reconstruct a whole sheep, and then when I grew up, I was going to figure out how to bring it back to life! I had lofty ambitions.
My teaching interest took a lot longer to develop. As an undergraduate, I avoided courses that had oral presentations as a requirement, even dropping one course the first week when I found out a presentation was required. In graduate school, I had so much anxiety over my first oral presentation that I got physically sick. If there had been a pure research route available to me during those early years of graduate study, I would have pursued it. But now, with practice, I find that I really enjoy teaching. I actually enjoy the challenge of trying to make difficult concepts accessible and understandable to my students.
What are the keys to being a successful teacher/professor? For me, the keys to success as a teacher are organization, fairness, empathy and some level of passion for the subject. Most students want to know in advance exactly what is required of them in a course, and what actions they need to take to be successful. Much of this can be accomplished with a clearly-written syllabus, and by drawing the students’ attention back to the syllabus every class period or two to remind them of what is coming. I sometimes suggest how much time the students should be devoting to studying for certain exams, particularly those exams that have been historically more difficult for their peers. Students seem to appreciate this guidance, even if they don’t always follow my advice!
Another important key for me is empathy for the students and their situations. I know that many students at NC State have to manage jobs and family issues while trying to get an education, while some do not. I have policies in my courses to help take these varying obligations into account. For example, I allow students to turn writing assignments in late in my upper division courses, although there is a penalty for doing so. The penalty is about fairness to those who completed assignments on time, while the acceptance of late papers is about empathy. Also, if we need to make any changes to the course schedule, because we are behind, or because of unexpected events such as snow days, I often consult the students and put these changes to a vote so that they have input into the process. I want my students to understand that my main concern is that I see my students’ best work, and not just something they have thrown together to meet a deadline.
The final key for me is to design courses, as much as possible, around topics that I am enthusiastic about. When I am passionate about a subject, students seem to pay more attention. I try to weave my own research and other experiences into my courses, where possible, and also try to frame some of the topics around issues that might be relevant to my students whether or not they decide to get an advanced degree in my field. We delve into subjects such as why the average height of people differs around the world, and what average height can tell us about the health of populations in the distant past. We talk about skeletal and dental variation, such as why some people never develop wisdom teeth, and how nutritional or disease stress at young ages can change the proportionate lengths of limb bones. Students can relate to topics such as these, increasing their interest in, and attention to, the concepts behind these examples.
What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? Probably my greatest satisfaction comes from seeing some of our best students get accepted into quality graduate programs or medical schools. Knowing that I have played a part in their success is very rewarding. But there are other areas of satisfaction that may not be as impactful individually, but are quite rewarding in the aggregate. I teach at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level in our program, so I often have a chance to track student progress among our majors through much of their undergraduate careers. One of the things I really enjoy seeing is how the academic prowess of many of our students, in terms of writing and analytical skills, improves significantly during the time they are at NCSU. These are life skills that will serve these students well regardless of what career paths they follow. When I see high quality analysis and excellent writing from seniors who will soon be heading out to take on the world, it makes me feel very good about the work we professors do collectively to educate our students here at NC State.