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Murphy Award winner reflects upon the importance of teaching


Fall 2018 | By Carla D. Bass. Photo by Alex Kumar.


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Outstanding instruction is the foundation for everything Purdue students and researchers accomplish. Somewhere along their path to discovery were teachers who sparked their interests and inspired them to achieve in the classroom, in the field, or in the laboratory.

By presenting the Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award to up to six faculty members each year, Purdue celebrates those who kindle that spark in the next generation. One of this year’s winners, associate professor of German and linguistics John Sundquist, shared his thoughts on teaching with THiNK Magazine’s Carla D. Bass:

Why and when did you decide to become a teacher?

The major inspiration occurred during my first semester teaching German as a graduate student. I enjoyed the challenge of adapting materials given to all the first-year students to my own particular class, seeing what worked and what didn’t, and trying again the next day.

I loved seeing my decisions applied in the classroom, observing the students’ reactions, and recognizing that I was shaping their learning experience not only daily, but also in the long term.

Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them?

I’ve learned from many amazing teachers. However, one undergraduate professor, Sarah DeMaris at Valparaiso University, influenced me significantly in two ways.

First, as I sought structured programs to spend a year abroad after graduation, she suggested I accomplish this independently since German universities did not charge tuition. I did precisely that, navigating the German university system on my own and working part-time to finance living expenses. Second, through her advice I learned the lifelong skills of self-reliance and self-determination to achieve personal goals.

As a graduate student, I also benefited from mentors who taught me to apply my research findings in the classroom, thus opening new avenues of discovery for my students.

Can you provide an instance that conveys why teaching is so worthwhile?

Each day in the classroom is worthwhile, affording the opportunity to influence the next generation.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience is hearing from former students. My classes inspired many to visit Germany, others pursued goals we discussed, still others secured jobs based on skills I helped them develop and refine. A former graduate student recently thanked me for inspiring him to pursue an avenue of research, now established as a completely new agenda in his job as a university professor.

Challenging students to think in new ways; motivating them to study abroad, or inspiring them to tackle a new, challenging job — that is what I cherish most about this profession.

What advice can you offer aspiring teachers?

First, develop your intuition and listen to it. Effective teaching often occurs in the moment, those interactions between the teacher, students, and the material.

Second, connect to other teachers and learn alternative ways to present material or engage students.

And third, be aware of a variety of learning styles in the classroom: reading and writing, speaking and listening, or hands-on activities.

My motto is, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I will learn.”