2023 Alden honorees with CLT staff

Alden awardees inspire students with innovative classroom strategies

February 1, 2024
By: Nancy Sheehan

A how-to-guide, complete with entertaining quips, and a song by Taylor Swift are among teaching tools that have been used by professors Riley McGuire and Hy Ginsberg, the 2023 recipients of the George I. Alden Excellence in Teaching Award.

The Center for Teaching and Learning: Faculty Development Center (CTL) created the award to publicly acknowledge professors who have made a difference in students’ lives through teaching excellence. McGuire, assistant professor of English, and Ginsberg, professor of mathematics, gave remarks at an event held in their honor Jan. 25 in the Sheehan multipurpose room.

Each year, Worcester State recognizes two current full-time tenured or tenure-track professors who have consistently demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to teaching that is academically challenging and motivating. The award nominating committee is composed of students, alumni, and faculty and then a committee of students, alumni, and previous Alden recipients select the next Alden Award winners.

“This award is given to two of our colleagues and they will deliver the lecture today,” Emily Soltano, professor of psychology and director of the CTL, said at the start of the event. “But this also is an opportunity for us to celebrate all of our faculty and I applaud all of you who are here in the room, and all the colleagues that we work with throughout the year.”

Provost Lois Wims introduced the honorees. She said that McGuire is known for his student-centered and community-building approach to teaching. He has created courses that explore marginalized experiences of gender identity, sexuality, and disability. He has also organized events for students to publicly share their work and has received several teaching fellowships and grants.

Ginsburg, Wims said, is an enthusiastic and innovative mathematics professor who doesn’t follow the conventional rules of teaching and learning. He is passionate about helping students succeed in math courses and has a unique teaching style that involves giving advice to students in a storytelling manner. He also has served on multiple university committees and subcommittees.

In a presentation laced with humor, Ginsberg discussed the challenges he faced teaching college algebra over the years. As a new teacher, he had high expectations and believed that his enthusiasm and clear explanations would surely be enough to lead every student to success. However, he soon realized that, despite his best efforts, many students were not grasping the material, which motivated him to improve his teaching methods.

Those efforts eventually included rewriting the course syllabus into a 15-page manual called “How to Succeed in Introduction to Functions, A Manual for Students.” It contained 11 pages of narrative followed by four pages of the more usual syllabus information. He handed it out on the first day of class and made reading it the students’ first homework assignment. The syllabus explained everything that Ginsberg had learned over 16 years and 21 previous sections of the course about why students succeed or failed in the class.

Ginsberg then read a brief passage from the expanded syllabus. “It says, this really is essentially the secret guide to success in math. And whether you found it hidden in a chamber in the basement of the Vatican or decoded it painstakingly from an extraterrestrial radio transmission or had it handed to you, printed, and stapled on the first day of class, the result is the same. It is now in your possession. And all that’s left for you to do is read it, follow its instructions and reap the rewards.”

Alas, the results were no better than in previous semesters, so Ginsberg said he has come to realize that students need to take responsibility for their own learning and that not all students will succeed, but he will continue to strive to inspire and support those who are willing to put in the effort.

“Some students are going to fail or withdraw, or do poorly every semester and I really can’t change that,” he said. “I can’t set their priorities for them. I can’t force them to work harder or care more. All I can really do is try to inspire them, and I do try, and I can encourage them to succeed, which I do.”

In his comments, McGuire reflected on his experience teaching online during the pandemic and the challenges he faced in creating a sense of community. He shared strategies he has used to foster community in his classes, such as incorporating music, collaborative assignments, and student input.

One of his more innovative approaches was the use of music to break through the sense of detachment he sees in today’s students as they sit staring at their phones or laptops, sometimes with earphones in, before class begins. He said he missed the murmur and chatter there used to be among students as they waited for class to start. “That pre-class chatter between students was a constant to the point where when I got ready to start, I would have to say, ‘Okay, let’s settle down,’” he said.  Now, there is usually just silence.

“It’s a different experience walking into a room, and I feel like the students don’t know each other,” McGuire said. “I think they’re not sure how they’re supposed to act in the classroom. They’re used to these interactions on online and I realized that things that used to happen organically in my classrooms now call for a higher degree of intentionality.”

To facilitate communication and connection among students in one of his classes, he asked them to submit two songs they’d like to share so he could compile a playlist. “The result cut across periods and genres – Bob Dylan, Lil Wayne, Tori Amos, Metallica, Alicia Keys, Bad Bunny, and of course Taylor Swift,” he said. “I then played the songs in that nebulous five to 10 minutes before class officially starts. Not only did I learn some great new music myself, but it helped the students to bond. They found a shared love for a musician. They learned that they were both about to attend the same concert, and two students even realized they both spoke Spanish. In short, more connective tissue was created and our more serious work together improved.”

Fostering a sense of community among students is important for several reasons, McGuire said.

“I left my doctoral program with a fixation on content and with ensuring that students read and absorbed as much material as possible,” he said. “I’ve since evolved to balance my specific core goals with the individual needs of the students in my classes. There’s a lot I want them to learn, but not at the expense of leaving my courses without meaningful opportunities for personal growth and a few new friendships. Emphasizing community building in our teaching isn’t a distraction. It doesn’t make us unserious as instructors. Rather, we need to respond to the growing pressures of our moment to prioritize community as a key conduit to conveying the content and skillset of our disciplines and not be afraid to fail a few times along the way.”

Members of the Worcester State community may view the full text of the honoree’s comments here.

Photos by Nancy Sheehan


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