Every year at Commencement, Wesleyan recognizes outstanding teaching with three Binswanger Prizes for Excellence in Teaching. These prizes, made possible by gifts from the family of the late Frank G. Binswanger Sr. Hon. ’85, underscore Wesleyan’s commitment to its scholar-teachers, who are responsible for the university’s distinctive approach to liberal arts education.
Recommendations are solicited from alumni of the last 10 graduating classes, as well as current juniors, seniors, and graduate students. Recipients are chosen by a selection committee of faculty and members of the Alumni Association Executive Committee.
Wesconnect caught up with former Binswanger Prize recipients to discuss their teaching careers and what it means to be recognized for their work.
WESCONNECT: Which professors have had an impact on you? How did that influence your teaching?
JAMES LIPTON: My teaching, I believe, has been deeply influenced by the approach and style of my best teachers. I was especially impressed by the excitement and command of the material shown by my first astronomy and physics teachers in my freshman year in college, and later, in deeper ways, by teachers in analysis, abstract algebra and logic. It is hard to find a unifying characteristic in the diversity of their approaches to teaching other than a capacity to share a sense of wonder for a beautiful subject, and perhaps a constant emphasis on what is commonly called the big picture: how each detail related to the overarching themes of the course and the reasons for studying the material in the first place.
I might add that most of the teachers I have in mind––but not all––had a certain air for presentation, and for reformulating the deeper themes of their courses in ways that addressed the main intuitions involved. New material, however unexpected and innovative, has to be connected if not to what a student already knows, at least to their intuition about the main motives and themes of the subject under study, even if the point is to challenge and disturb that intuition.
One of the points of choosing an academic career is to make learning a permanent feature of one’s life and this has certainly occurred in stimulating ways in mine in seminars and courses taken after my studies were officially over. In particular I am thinking of a course in category theory (a hot topic in mathematics and computer science) taken when I was a postdoc, lectures in the same subject I attended at Wesleyan years later, and recently a drawing course also taken here. Which have been the pivotal points in your teaching career at Wesleyan? There have been a number of moments when I sensed a strong rapport with students in a certain course and a deep connection on their part with the material. Such moments are worth their weight in gold. To this I would add that collaborating with students on senior projects or tutorials has often brought me a special satisfaction and new ways of appreciating the material being studied.
WC: What have been the pivotal points in your teaching career at Wesleyan?
JL: There have been a number of moments when I sensed a strong rapport with students in a certain course and a deep connection on their part with the material. Such moments are worth their weight in gold. To this I would add that collaborating with students on senior projects or tutorials has often brought a special satisfaction and new ways of appreciating the material being studied.
WC: How has your research evolved over the years? What are you working on right now?
JL: I started my research working with a topic in mathematical logic called realizability invented by Stephen Kleene in the 1950’s. I continued studying related material from several standpoints for a number of years. Curiously I am returning to the subject many years later. After this phase in my research life I moved on to the analysis of programming languages based on computing with relations and connected with mathematical logic (so-called declarative programming languages).
WC: What has the Binswanger Prize meant to you?
JL: It means a great deal, a kind of affirmation after years of trying to make my teaching reach goals connected to the issues I just raised above. I want material to reach students and inform their intuitions on the subject of study in a deep way. I want the details to connect with those intuitions and to matter. Receiving the prize has made me think that in some way I have met those objectives. It has also encouraged me to strive further to meet these and other goals. It is an invitation to improve my teaching in as many ways as I can.
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