EDINBURG – Two faculty members from the Department of English at The University of Texas-Pan American are recipients of The University of Texas System's Board of Regents' 2011 Outstanding Teaching Awards.
Dr. Linda Belau, professor, and Dr. Theron Francis, lecturer, were among 72 educators in UT System academic institutions who will share $1.8 million in awards recognizing their extraordinary classroom performance and innovation at the undergraduate level.
The awards, which range from $15,000 to $30,000, are believed to be among the nation's highest for higher education faculty. Established by the Board of Regents in August 2008, the awards program has recognized 217 educators spanning more than 100 disciplines.
"Exceptional university teaching has been at the core of the services our universities provide to our students since our inception in 1883. When most of us reflect back on our college experience one or more great educators who left an indelible mark on our lives come to mind," said Board of Regents' chair Gene Powell.
Campus and external judges rigorously examined candidates' teaching performance over three years. Additionally, students, peer faculty and external reviewers considered a range of activities and criteria, including classroom expertise, quality of curriculum, innovative course development and student learning outcomes.
This year tenured honorees will receive $30,000; tenure track, $25,000; and contingent (adjuncts, lecturers and instructional assistants), $15,000 awards.
"It is our System's responsibility to provide an exceptional education to our students, and we believe this award program not only furthers that goal, but helps promote a culture of excellence that produces better teaching, better learning and, ultimately, better prepared graduates to enter our work force," said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D.
Twelve other UTPA faculty members have received the Regent's award for teaching since it was initiated.
"Through their exemplary teaching, Drs. Belau and Francis are truly making a difference in the lives of our students," said UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen."We know that our educators at Pan Am consistently go above the norm to support student success. It is gratifying that for the third year in a row, the creativity these teachers apply toward providing an exceptional educational experience for students is recognized statewide."
Dr. Linda Belau
Belau, who was honored in the tenured category, came to UTPA in 2003 from George Washington University. She has taught a variety of undergraduate courses at UTPA with specializations in literary theory, psychoanalysis, film studies and autobiographical literature.
Belau has been instrumental in innovative curriculum development within her department, including the oversight of the complete restructuring of the English major and the creation and teaching of Survey of Literary Theory, a required upper division course for English majors. She also developed UTPA's new interdisciplinary film studies minor and currently directs that program.
As a leader in the use of technology to enhance her teaching, Belau has created and delivers a number of new online courses. Belau has also been a strong supporter of international education at UTPA, creating the English Studies in London travel abroad program with courses designed as Learning Communities courses. Her commitment to a diverse pedagogy is evident through her frequent use of multicultural texts and inclusion of cross-cultural perspectives.
Belau's students have frequently evaluated her as an "enthusiastic and motivating instructor" and her courses have consistently been in high demand with low attrition rates.
"She (Dr. Belau) brings this ferocious level of energy and tenacious commitment into the classroom that is contagious and inspiring. It is obvious she puts a lot of time and effort into her work both inside and out of the classroom, so much so that you want to come to class prepared," said Jason Stoll, who is majoring in English with a minor in film studies and has taken several of Belau's courses.
Belau said she has a particular affinity for Pan Am and its students arising from her own personal background as a first-generation college student and a product of a public school education. Her teaching philosophy is always a student-centered one, she said, using alternative pedagogical approaches and innovative teaching practices that demonstrate open-mindedness and flexibility to her students, no matter what the content of what she is teaching in class.
"Students in my classes learn both from what I say and what I do since I don't just 'talk the talk,' as they say. Instead, I make a point to 'walk the walk' as well and to engage my students in the process of learning by way of positive example," she said.
Belau said she was surprised and very happy to receive this recognition.
"I am grateful to the UT Regents for their support of excellence in teaching, to UTPA for offering an array of opportunities for developing teaching excellence and pedagogical creativity, to my talented colleagues for their inspiration, and also to my wonderful students who make learning and teaching fun and engaging."
Dr. Theron Francis
Francis was honored in the contingent faculty category. He came to UTPA in 2005 from Purdue University. His first teaching experience was in Yemen as a Peace Corps volunteer. A lecturer at UTPA, Francis regularly teaches five courses a semester and as many as 400 students a year. Although he has taught every discipline in the English Department, he specializes in linguistics, literature and rhetoric/composition.
With a belief that learning best takes place through practice, he has been a strong advocate for service learning projects and meaningful undergraduate research and outreach programs that address community problems and issues.
"Student research is meaningful when it deals with real issues and addresses real audiences. My students say their research is better when it is needed. If student work is publishable, original, authoritative and relevant to real life issues, then a classroom community of fellow researchers is established," Francis said.
A scholar on the environmental ethics of Henry David Thoreau, Francis serves on the Environmental Studies Taskforce, a multi-disciplinary group of faculty members who worked to implement an Environmental Studies minor in the humanities. He has also designed English Department courses to fit into that minor. Through innovative service learning projects with the University's Office of Sustainability, he and his students have successfully worked to implement sustainability into the UTPA curriculum and raise consciousness regarding sustainability in the Rio Grande Valley community.
During UTPA's annual International Week, Francis' students have joined him on public presentations regarding their research on peace education and conflict resolution allowing students the valuable experience of teaching others. Their joint research also resulted in a book regarding diverse dialects across the Rio Grande Valley.
He also recently collaborated with other English faculty to secure a Texas Humanities grant to provide training to area K-12 educators on teaching English Language Learners.
Francis has consistently ranked high on teaching evaluations by students.
"One of the most innovative aspects about Professor Francis is that he makes literature a hands-on subject," wrote his student Victor Villa, who is pursuing a minor in English. "He took a subject that for the most part was read, discuss, read, discuss, and turned it into read, discuss, experience, see, feel, listen and embrace. Through his environmental literature course, he taught me about the beauty of nature; but not just in the wilderness or in forests, but of my very own area."
Francis said the award reflects how much the UT System values student-centered learning as well as the creativity of its students. He said the honor to him by receiving the award is shared with his colleagues and students.
"I could not make it here at UTPA unless I felt honored by my colleagues and my students. Teaching is all about honoring others. What I do, I do with others. How do I feel? I feel honored for the work I did with others," he said.