Sunday, April 01, 2007

A "Golden Apple" for Andy Markovits ... and an "ideal last lecture"

If you spend a substantial amount of your life as a teacher, much of your satisfaction will come from from the accomplishments of your students and a sense that you've managed to have some significant positive impact on the ways that they and others understand the world. But it's always nice to get a little appreciation and recognition, too--and formal prizes are not to be sneezed at, either. It appears that my friend Andy Markovits (whom I recently discussed here) has just hit the jackpot in that respect. (For details, see the article below.)

Andy started out as an assistant professor in the late 1970s (like me) and since then has been a faculty member at several universities. In 1999 he wound up at the University of Michigan with an interdisciplinary chair in Comparative Politics and German Studies--a title that covers a lot of territory, but still captures only part of his serious intellectual interests. This month Andy received the annual Golden Apple Award as the most effective and inspiring undergraduate teacher at the University. The winner is chosen by a student-run organization, Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching (SHOUT), on the basis of nominations sent in by students and other members of the University community.

I'm not surprised that Andy should have won an award of this sort, since it has been widely known for decades that, along with his other talents and accomplishments, he's a wonderful teacher--challenging, conscientious, enthusiastic, excitingly engaged, and always overflowing with interesting and provocative ideas. So this is a clear case of virtue rewarded.

=> At the same time, I'm struck by three features of this Golden Apple award that are intriguing and a little unusual.

First, unlike other university teaching awards that I've known about over the years, this one is awarded by a body that is entirely student-run. That notion will probably make some people nervous, but in this case there seems to be a consensus that SHOUT has done a serious and credible job of making its choices over the years, one sign being that the Golden Apple award is considered quite prestigious.

Second, the award is presented to the professor being honored that year by a delegation that visits one of his or her classes and makes the announcement in front of the class. In general, frankly, I am very unsympathetic to the idea of any practice that would interrupt a class meeting for any reason. But I suspect that I might be willing to make an exception in order to get this kind of surprise. (In Andy's case, as this video of the event shows, he was--uncharacteristically--rendered speechless for a few moments.)

=> But another feature is actually the most interesting. In addition to receiving the honor and a modest cash prize, each year's Golden Apple winner is asked to give a lecture on a topic of his or her own choosing at a special event open to the University community and the general public. The honoree should treat this as an opportunity to present what he or she would consider his or her "ideal last lecture."
In addition to his mid-lecture visit, Markovits received an assignment from SHOUT: to give his ideal last lecture. Bronstein [a SHOUT co-chair] explained that this is a cornerstone of the Golden Apple award because it gives all students the opportunity to listen to a professor who they may never have the opportunity to take a class with. Markovits will deliver his ideal last lecture on April 12 at 8 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium.
I must confess that I would find this assignment rather daunting. With so many things to talk about, how would one choose the subject for a final (or summing-up) lecture like this?

At the same time, this is also an intriguing and thought-provoking notion. I know that a number of you who are reading this are (or have been, or will be) teachers yourselves. If you were given the opportunity to deliver something approximating your "ideal last lecture," what would it be about? Worth pondering, perhaps ...

--Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. I am told that the Golden Apple award-&-lecture also exists at UC Berkeley, where it was instituted in 2005. I don't know whether there are equivalents anywhere else.]

The Michigan Daily (University of Michigan)
March 16, 2007
Class turns golden for prof
By Taryn Hartman, Daily Staff Reporter

Political science and German Prof. Andrei Markovits was five minutes into his Sports and Society class yesterday when a voice interrupted him from the top of the lecture hall.

"Excuse me, Professor Markovits?" it asked. With a bewildered expression on his face, Markovits looked in the direction of the voice.

It belonged to LSA junior Andrew Bronstein, co-chair of Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching. [JW: At the University of Michigan, "LSA" = the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts--i.e., the undergraduate program.]

Bronstein and three other SHOUT members then descended the stairs of the lecture hall in the Dennison Building, a bouquet of maize-and-blue balloons in hand, to present Markovits with the 17th -annual Golden Apple Award, given each year to the teacher a student committee selects as the best professor on campus.

Prof. Andrei Markovitz is rendered speechless yesterday afternoon after LSA junior Andrew Bronstein, a co-chair of Students Honoring Outstanding University Teaching, announces that the professor has won the coveted Golden Apple Award. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

"If I had known this, I would've put on a jacket," said Markovits - clad in a pair of brown corduroys and a merlot-colored hooded sweatshirt - after the strong applause of his students died down and he had a moment to collect his thoughts.

Once the honor had sunk in, Markovits returned to the day's lecture on the history of the National Hockey League in North America and its wider global significance, which he delivered, seemingly from memory, as his notes lay spread before him on the large lab table at the front of the room.

"I thought someone didn't like what I said about the Red Wings," he said in an interview once most of his students had left the lecture hall after class. Just before the SHOUT team appeared, he had mentioned the Detroit Cougars, who wouldn't become the Red Wings until 1932.

Later, in his office, where bulging shelves of books line the walls, Markovits reflected on the afternoon's excitement.

"I'm so flattered, and I'm so humbled, and I'm so honored," he said.

"It was perfect that it happened in the sports class," Markovits continued. "I love that class. Sports is still not treated with the same academic respect. I am very committed to fighting that."

Markovits called himself an "LSA man," referring to his joint appointment with the German and political science departments and his partnership with the sociology department in developing the sports course.

"I'm using sports as a vehicle to explain and illustrate larger social and political phenomenon," Markovits said. "You can do this with film, once can do this with pretty much anything that you study at a university. It so happens that sport, to me, is a very good vehicle to look at all these things."

"It's not just a class about schmoozing about the Yankees," he said.

Still, the topic attracts students to the class in droves.

Rackham student Jeffrey Luppes is one of two GSIs who are assisting Markovits with the course for the second time and was one of the students who nominated Markovits for the Golden Apple. The committee accepts nominations from the student body.

Luppes said that the first few weeks of the class are hardest on the GSIs because of the number of students who want to enroll. He said it isn't uncommon for waitlists for discussion sections to include more than 10 people each.

"His excitement is genuine, and it's infectious," Luppes said of Markovits's passion for his material. "He makes students want to learn more about the topic and understand it like he does."

Luppes said Markovits extends this enthusiasm beyond the classroom and is quick to write a recommendation for a student.

"Everyone knows him in the German political world, so if you have his recommendation, you'll probably get what you're applying for," he said. "His voice carries a lot of weight."

According to Bronstein, though, Markovits popularity doesn't come from letting students slack off.

"Students look to him because he is challenging," Bronstein said, citing the nominations that SHOUT received on behalf of Markovits.

In addition to his mid-lecture visit, Markovits received an assignment from SHOUT: to give his ideal last lecture. Bronstein explained that this is a cornerstone of the Golden Apple award because it gives all students the opportunity to listen to a professor who they may never have the opportunity to take a class with. Markovits will deliver his ideal last lecture on April 12 at 8 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium.

Recent recipients of the award include English professor Eric Rabkin in 2006, English professor John Rubadeau in 2005 and history professor Matt Lassiter in 2004. The Golden Apple has been awarded since 1991, when psychology professor Drew Westen won the first one.