News & Awards

Two WWS faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Jun 1, 2011

Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies Tuesday, May 31. Of the four, two are Woodrow Wilson School professors: Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and Daniel Oppenheimer, associate professor of psychology and public affairs.

The awards were established in 1991 through gifts by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen of the class of 1950 and John Sherrerd of the class of 1952 to recognize excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching by Princeton faculty members. Each winner receives a cash prize of $5,000, and his or her department receives $3,000 for the purchase of new books.

A committee of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and academic administrators selected the winners from nominations by current students, faculty colleagues and alumni.

Case, who earned a master's in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1983 and a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton in 1988, has been a member of the University faculty since 1991. Her scholarly interests are economic development, primarily in South Africa, and health issues in developed and developing countries. Her teaching largely focuses on development economics at the master's level in the Wilson School and at the doctoral level in the Department of Economics.

In the classroom, Case brings technical and theoretical subjects to life and reminds students that their mission as scholars is to help make a difference in society. In recommending Case for the award, a current Ph.D. student in economics wrote, "Professor Case's passion for South Africa surfaced in nearly every lecture through anecdotes or rigorous academic studies. Her enthusiasm and unquenchable thirst to understand the problems besetting South African households infused life into dry or seemingly intangible economic theory. … Professor Case's excitement over the latest release of a comprehensive demography survey from KwaZulu-Natal, or lingering questions as to how and why family composition was dramatically changing over time, reminded us of the bigger world beyond the confines of Princeton University." Another graduate student in economics added, "She is a teacher who can transform any dry, theoretic paper into accessible and exciting material, full of unanswered questions for us to explore together with her. She turns each lecture into an engaging discussion in which even the shy students like me feel stimulated to participate."

Colleagues noted that Case is both tireless and selfless in supporting the development of her advisees and other students. For example, she established a research lunch for faculty and graduate students who work in development and health, at which students present works in progress. In addition, two colleagues recalled, "Several summers ago, Anne arranged a research colloquium for approximately eight Ph.D. students at a remote field site in South Africa. There they learned about the research going on at the site and interacted with South African researchers and graduate students. We know that Anne used her own unrestricted funds to cover a substantial portion of this colloquium -- funds she could have used for her own work."

As an adviser, Case is known for motivating students to pursue challenging questions and to think creatively about how to develop their own research ideas. "Teaching economics demands a delicate balance between instilling confidence in a student's abilities while still making sure they are uncomfortable enough to push themselves as hard as is required. Anne excels at this skill," a former advisee wrote. Another former graduate student recalled, "When I would come to her office with a crazy idea, possibly promising but probably almost impossible to actually pursue, she'd join my excitement and say something like, 'OK, this is great. Now just do it.' And I, eventually out of excuses, just did it."

Oppenheimer, who has taught at Princeton since 2004, studies human decision-making in a variety of contexts, from education to charitable giving to the stock market. Oppenheimer's pursuit of his eclectic collection of research interests is fueled by the intellectual and creative stimulation he gets from teaching, including leading his popular "Introduction to Psychology" course, advising undergraduate and graduate students, and serving as faculty fellow to the Princeton men's and women's varsity volleyball teams.

In taking on teaching duties for "Introduction to Psychology," Oppenheimer has earned the respect of his colleagues and the rapt attention of his students by developing a curriculum that incorporates amusing yet inspiring lectures with engaging laboratory sessions. He tosses bags of M&Ms to students who volunteer to be part of classroom demonstrations, and even brings a 5-year-old "guest lecturer" into class to demonstrate how children think. "As a teacher, Danny is always the consummate psychologist," a colleague wrote in nominating him for the award. "His lectures are fun and entertaining on the surface, but underneath they are absolutely brilliant. Everything psychologists know about how people learn and what motivates them to learn is deployed to maximal effect." His colleague noted that Oppenheimer said that leading the labor-intensive introductory course actually would inspire him to produce more research, and "his productivity over the last seven years has borne out his claim."

Oppenheimer's teaching portfolio in the Wilson School includes graduate courses on psychology and policy and on accountability in higher education, as well as an undergraduate policy task force on higher education testing. One student from his policy task force said Oppenheimer "was able to create an environment in which one never felt pressured to find the 'right' thing to say or was afraid to speak his/her mind for fear that the ideas would be considered 'silly.' At the same time, he was a rigorous discussion leader who constantly kept us on our toes by challenging our assumptions, playing devil's advocate and telling us we could do better."

Oppenheimer maintains a similarly challenging but supportive environment for the students who conduct research under his supervision in the "Opp Lab," where he holds weekly meetings for all of his advisees, research assistants and other students who want to become involved in psychological research. Oppenheimer's "encouragement of excellence was coupled with a healthy dose of humor that made the Opp Lab fun," said a former student. "Silly as it may seem, knowing as an undergraduate that the 'Mr. Incredible' toy award was up for grabs in weekly lab meetings made me all that much more eager to exceed requirements. Meanwhile, while this weekly award was taken fairly seriously as an added incentive to produce and be promptly recognized for exceptional work, knowing that the 'Best Attempt at Humor' award was also up for grabs made the meetings lighthearted events, and knowing that the 'Worst Attempt at Humor' award would inevitably go to Danny put us all at ease. Danny's unique brand of brilliantly corny humor works wonders in making him relatable despite his genius."