SBS Names Outstanding Teachers for 2014

Brian McDermott and Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji

Brian McDermott and Mwanji wa Gĩthĩngi

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This year’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award goes to Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji, assistant professor of economics, and Brian McDermott, lecturer and Online Program Co-Director in the Journalism Department.

These inspirational teachers have been heralded for their innovative pedagogical approaches, exceptional performance, and written comments, including rousing endorsements by students and colleagues. Both have made a positive impact on the academic growth of students, as well as on their sense of living in the world.

Wa Gĩthĩnji, who joined the economics faculty in 2006, is a well-known authority on African development, which informs all of his courses. His teaching is anchored in a clear philosophical approach that he uses to construct his classes. Starting with the assumption that students are not empty pots waiting to be filled, he brings to class knowledge and experiences that are useful and can be used to integrate new knowledge. Wa Gĩthĩnji tries to communicate three basic themes: the ability to reason; specific subject knowledge; and the ability to participate fully as a citizen in a democratic society. His love of teaching is based on his own desire to learn and interest in passing this feeling of fulfillment on to students.

To transmit material to different types and levels of learners, wa Gĩthĩnji uses a variety of techniques, including lectures, audio-visual material, group projects, discussion and presentation, and peer review of work. To encourage a more complete relationship with students, he holds coffee hours during which conversation is driven by students and does not have to focus on classroom issues. The idea is to give students a forum in which to air concerns in a safe space.

Last fall wa Gĩthĩnji supervised seven undergraduates in a large data intensive research project on trust and inequality in African countries as part of the Economics Undergraduate Research Program. He also has supervised numerous honors theses and independent studies, and served on the Undergraduate Affairs Committee twice as internship coordinator.

On the graduate level, wa Gĩthĩnji has served on numerous dissertation committees, directed independent studies, served as mentor, and collaborated on papers with several students to help introduce them to the requirements of being a professional economist.

Wa Gĩthĩnji’s students offer extensive testimony to his teaching, his commitment to advising and the impact he has on them. Says one undergraduate, “Econometrics was one of the most important classes I have taken, and I was lucky to have had an instructor who cares as much about his students as Mwangi does….Our class was a perfect blend of serious and casual—it felt like Mwangi was conversing with us, not lecturing.”

Another adds, “His demand for quality work and expectation of greatness has stuck with me. I always admire his ability to work effectively with people of other cultures and diverse backgrounds.”

And finally, another says, “Being from Nigeria, I have personal experience living in the reality of a developing economy [but] I never really understood the fundamentals behind poor infrastructure, corruption and other challenges. Mwangi’s course opened my mind to doing in-depth research to understand the economic history of my country.”

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Hired in 2009, Brian McDermott brought to campus the talent and creativity of a great photographer and the tech savvy of a gifted web designer. While he continues to pursue photography, and his redesign of the Journalism Department’s website has become a campus model, McDermott’s teaching goes far beyond those talents. Besides teaching skills associated with photography, videography and web design, he emphasizes critical thinking in relation to the history, ethics, law, and current issues impacting these areas.

Student evaluations make it clear that McDermott breaks down complex processes into accessible portions while ensuring that everyone is on track. His classrooms are vibrant and interactive, and descriptors like “inspiring,” “engaging,” “enthusiastic,” and “passionate” appear regularly in student evaluations. While helping students develop work around their interests, he also pushes them out of their comfort zones and encourages creativity and willingness to experiment.

After McDermott established himself in teaching an array of advanced skills courses, he asked to also teach "Introduction to Journalism," a larger lecture course, because he wanted to challenge himself as a teacher. Says Karen List, chair of the department and a seasoned teacher of larger classes, “I’m continually inspired by the enthusiasm Brian brings to the Intro class. He has infused [it] with interactive in-class exercises and innovative assignments, such as interviewing someone with whom they disagree…and class-sourced reporting.” One student said, “He always engaged students and stimulated participation. I love this class…probably the best I’ve taken so far.”

One of the things List admires most about McDermott is his fearlessness. “He constantly comes up with creative ideas and makes them happen,” she says. “Nowhere is this attitude clearer than in his decision to develop and teach the first MOOC at the university. It took many months to get the support and prepare the content. In the end “Building a Basic Website” attracted more than 1,000 students from 50 countries, and the Boston Globe named it among the eight most interesting MOOCs offered in the region.”

McDermott continues to take on one challenge after another: transforming the Online Journalism Program, with Razvan Sibii, by integrating it with the on-the-ground curriculum and finding top-notch instructors; teaching teachers too, as head of the SBS Online Fellows Program; working on new ways for Journalism to think about visual literacy in its curriculum; developing a mini-MOOC for Data Journalism with Al Jazeera America Interactive editor and online instructor Lam Thuy Vo, and so much more. List sums up, “Brian’s enthusiasm and commitment to teaching are contagious and inspire his colleagues to be the best they can be too.”