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Four professors named 2018 MacVicar Fellows

Autor, Capozzola, Raman, and Smith receive MIT’s most prestigious undergraduate teaching award.

Alison Trachy | Registrar’s Office
March 5, 2018

This Friday, the MIT community will gather to celebrate exceptional undergraduate teaching and discuss inclusive classroom practices and strategies as part of the 26th annual MacVicar Day.

The 2018 MacVicar Faculty fellows are: David Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics and associate head of the Department of Economics; Christopher Capozzola, an associate professor of history; Shankar Raman, a professor of literature; and Merritt Roe Smith, the
Leverett and William Cutten Professor of the History of Technology in the Department of History and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS).

MacVicar Day is named after the late professor Margaret MacVicar, founder of MIT’s renowned Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and the first dean for undergraduate education. She revolutionized the undergraduate experience by refusing to accept the status quo. With a fierce belief in her students’ ability, she expanded research opportunities, revised academic requirements, and fostered a welcoming and innovative community. The MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program recognizes professors who continue her work as a champion of teaching and advising, and who engage with students to advance the mission of the Institute.

Fellows are selected through an annual merit-based nomination process. An advisory committee — comprised of the vice chancellor, faculty from each of the five schools, and current undergraduate students — review the nominations and recommend candidates to the provost. Each fellow receives $10,000 per year, over a 10-year term, for educational activities, research, travel, and other scholarly expenses.

This year’s MacVicar Day symposium is titled “Inclusive Pedagogies: Building a Vibrant Community of Learners at MIT.” Vice Chancellor Ian A. Waitz will host the event. A panel of MIT faculty — including Catherine Drennan, Eric Klopfer, Katrina LaCurts, Christine Ortiz, and Meredith Thompson — will share the ways in which they have cultivated inclusive learning environments. A special introduction will honor former president Paul Gray’s contributions to undergraduate education and, in particular, his commitment to making MIT more diverse and representative.

The symposium will take place on Friday, March 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. in Room 6-120. A reception will follow in the Chipman Room (Room 6-104). The entire MIT community is welcome.

David Autor

Autor received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tufts University and a master’s degree and PhD in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He joined the MIT community in 1999.

Autor is a co-director of the MIT School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative (SEII), which studies the economics of education and the connections between human capital and the American income distribution. Recent subjects taught include Labor Economics and Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy.

“I’m utterly thrilled to be selected as a MacVicar fellow,” Autor says. “MIT undergraduates are simply the best students a professor could ever hope to encounter. They’re incredibly capable, brutally hardworking, and, most of all, endlessly intellectually inquisitive. Some of the best questions I’ve ever encountered at MIT have come from my undergraduates. It’s an honor to be in a classroom with them.”

Autor also reflected on his own experience as a student and how it has shaped his teaching: “I didn’t study economics at all as an undergraduate. I discovered it by accident from an inspiring professor who enabled students to grasp the value of economics. Likewise, I hope to convey to MIT students why economics is such a powerful lens for understanding the world, how economics research is done, and how researchers, policymakers, and engaged citizens use economics to make astute decisions.”

Advising was highlighted as one of Autor’s greatest strengths by his nominators. “At my own crossroads when I deliberated between different careers, Prof. Autor cared to find an array of values that motivated me and helped me appreciate how they harmonize. I believe that building these kinds of bridges is at the heart of maintaining diversity and being an agent for it,” one student wrote.

“David is one of the most sought-after undergraduate research supervisors, and he is particularly well-known for involving his undergraduate students in research projects that provide them with an introduction to cutting-edge research,” says Nancy Rose, the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics and head of the Department of Economics.

The creation of a new major, called computer science, economics and data science (Course 6-14), in fall 2017, was due in large part to Autor’s resolve. “Had it not been for the excitement, engagement, vision, and steady hand of David, this major would not have happened,” wrote Konstantinos Daskalakis, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Christopher Capozzola

Capozzola is an associate professor of history, focusing on the political and cultural history of the United States from the late-19th century to the present. He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and a master’s degree, MPhil, and PhD from Columbia University. In 2002, he joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor. He was promoted to Lister Brother Career Development Associate Professor of History in 2006, and then to associate professor with tenure in 2009. From 2011 to 2012, he served as the acting associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Capozzola says that the MacVicar fellowship is, first and foremost, “an award that honors MIT undergraduates, who are such an exciting challenge to teach. They’re hardworking, no-nonsense, and unimaginably curious. They are willing to hear about the history of time zones or neckties and how it relates to American history; ready to wander around the Lower East Side in the rain or the Salem waterfront in the heat; and always eager to challenge their own assumptions … and mine, too.”

“I’ve had the good fortune to share the classroom with gifted teaching assistants, writing instructors, and fellow professors, and I share this award with them. Along the way, many offices at MIT have supported teaching experiments, from first-year focus subjects to MOOCs. It has meant a lot to me to teach at a place that truly values trying something new in the classroom every day.”

Examples of Capozzola’s innovative and hands-on approach to teaching filled the nomination materials. “Every class was an adventure,” one student wrote. “He pushed us to think outside the historical narratives we had been given in previous history classes or popular culture, and to develop our own viewpoints on the events we studied based on the facts and stories from primary sources.”

Capozzola’s background in museum and public history informs the importance he places on primary sources in his lessons. He enlists a wide range of contemporaneous documents — such as articles, cartoons, short films, letters, and novels from the era — in his teaching. When he taught a seminar on the history of the immigrant experience, he arranged for students to travel to New York City, where they walked through prominent immigrant neighborhoods, ate foods from other cultures, and visited historical sites.

Craig Steven Wilder, the Barton L. Weller Professor of History wrote: “[Capozzola’s] commitment to education and learning does not begin and end at the classroom door; rather, he brings students to spaces where they get to see and reinterpret the past, and where they discover how history informs and encompasses their lives.”

Students agreed. “Professor Capozzola,” one said, “challenged [us] to push beyond our preconceived notions and assumptions, and to engage with historical evidence with an open mind. … His guidance led to a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion of ethics, responsibility, statehood, and citizenship — one that profoundly shaped my future academic work and thought.”

Shankar Raman

Raman is a professor of literature. His research ranges from Renaissance and late-Medieval literature and culture to post-colonialism and literary theory. After receiving bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and architecture at MIT and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, Raman changed fields and received a master’s and PhD in English literature from Stanford University. He began teaching at MIT in 1995, gained tenure in 2002, and received full professor status in 2012.

Raman’s unconventional path has proven particularly beneficial to his students. “One of the most unique and helpful aspects of Prof. Raman’s advising,” one former student wrote, “was his ability to leverage his own unique life trajectory, which enables him to connect with MIT students on their own technically-minded terms better than most.”

Colleagues praise Raman’s “pedagogically insightful, generously collective” personality. Head of the literature section, Mary C. Fuller, says, “Shankar transmits to students his own appetite for thinking beyond the classroom.”

This sentiment was echoed in many of the student nominations. “It’s hard not to be intoxicated by the kind of intellectual energy Prof. Raman fosters in his classes. It’s why I chose to take another class with him, why I recommend his classes to my friends, and why he is one of my favorite professors at the Institute,” one wrote.

“His capacity for explaining abstruse philosophy is unrivaled, and his excitement about ideas is infectious. Twelve years later, I still have and refer to the handouts from [his literary theory] course,” another wrote.

As curriculum committee chair, Raman was influential in the creation of popular six-unit literature subjects called samplings, which focus on reading and discussion. “The samplings subjects are now a permanent fixture in the literature curriculum and have brought in many students who may not otherwise have taken a literature class at MIT. That these subjects exist at all is due to Shankar’s vision and initiative,” says Noel Jackson, an associate professor of literature.

Raman was humbled upon learning that he would be a MacVicar fellow. “My first reaction was one of gratitude towards friends and colleagues in my department and at MIT. I am fortunate to have a number of colleagues who have functioned as pedagogical models over the years, leading me to think more deeply about what works in the classroom. I am grateful to those who got me interested in educational policy at MIT, getting me involved in pedagogical issues whose impact extends beyond the classroom. I am still a little surprised that I was chosen, but am honored by the award, and look forward to contributing further to teaching here at MIT in years to come.”

Merritt Roe Smith

Smith completed his undergraduate studies in history at Georgetown University, and then went on to receive a master’s degree and PhD in history from Pennsylvania State University. During his incredible 40-year tenure at MIT, Smith has served as STS program director and housemaster of Burton-Conner House. He teaches a range of subjects in STS and history, including STS.026 (History of Manufacturing in America) and 21H.205 (Civil War and Modern America).

Smith is a “model of best practices” who is beloved for his “practical compassion” and the way he “treats everyone with dignity and generosity,” according to his nominators. He has a loyal following of students who describe themselves as “concentrating in Roe.”

Smith emboldens his students to come to their own conclusions by asking questions and listening to others. As one student explained: “When Prof. Smith gives a lecture, he doesn’t simply teach. He makes sure that each and every student in the class is empowered to state their unique opinion. He challenges our existing preconceptions and compels us to see history from different perspectives.”

Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, witnessed Smith’s exemplary teaching firsthand when she co-taught STS.050 (The History of MIT) with him. As students introduced themselves on the first day of class, at least a third of them said that they were there expressly because of Smith. “Every teacher has a few students who become quite devoted,” Douglas says, “but I had never seen quite so many before.”

Smith credits his role as housemaster as a major factor in his success. “I’m very honored to be named a MacVicar Faculty fellow. Undergraduate education means a great deal to me. I feel optimistic about the future because I have met and interacted with so many remarkable young adults.”

“As a housemaster, I learned how undergraduates thought about their classes and prioritized things, and I learned to better appreciate student schedules and adjust my teaching commitments. I tried to become more flexible in my demands while maintaining high academic standards and, as a result, saw the work my students submitted improve significantly. I’ve learned as much from these students as they’ve learned from me.”

Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology says of her colleague: “He shows his students how to learn, how to listen, how to discuss, and why it all matters. One of the students told me that Professor Smith was not trying to be a star performer but a conductor, showing them how to create a symphony of ideas.”