WMU News

Dawson and Harris earn Teaching Excellence Awards

Feb. 1, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Two Western Michigan University faculty members will be recognized Thursday, Feb. 7, for their superior classroom skills when they receive the WMU Alumni Association Teaching Excellence Award.

The 2001 awards will be presented to Dr. Mary L. Dawson, professor of health, physical education and recreation, and Dr. Carolyn J. Harris, professor of foreign languages and literatures. They will be honored during the University's annual Academic Convocation at 5 p.m. in the Fetzer Center's Kirsch Auditorium. In addition to a plaque, the winners will each receive a $2,000 cash prize.

The Alumni Association established the awards program in 1966 as a way for alumni, students, and faculty and staff to recognize exceptional teachers at WMU. Dawson and Harris join a select group of 127 University scholars who have received Teaching Excellence awards during the past 35 years. An Alumni Association committee chooses recipients from nominations by alumni, students and departmental colleagues.

Dawson came to WMU in 1979 and is an expert in biomechanics. An active researcher, she has helped the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation establish and maintain one of the finest laboratory facilities in the Midwest. She has been active on departmental, College of Education and University committees and since 1990, has been a member of all 46 of her department's thesis committees, serving on 31 as chairperson.

One of the administrators nominating Dawson called her an extremely competent teacher who, after joining the faculty, quickly earned the respect of her students and colleagues.

"She proved to be a tough, demanding professor who was always willing to help students having difficulty grasping the course material...," he wrote. "Her teaching performance was outstanding in every respect. I truly consider Dr. Dawson to be one of the best professors that I have known during my 34 years here at WMU."

The many alumni joining in nominating Dawson also attested to her superior teaching skills, frequently citing her for offering highly organized classes that made them work hard and that reflected the latest research and technological advances in addition to being directly applicable to the real world.

"Although Mary was the toughest teacher I had in my college career, she was also the most admired," one alumna confided. "Because she set high standards but was willing to help us meet those standards, we learned more from her classes than we ever expected we could learn."

Another graduate described Dawson as an incredibly dedicated and motivating professor. "She is an excellent source of knowledge and is able to apply that knowledge to 'real-life' examples, the former student wrote. "My educational experience with Dr. Dawson and the HPER department allowed me to walk into a job (cardiac drug research) with confidence in my skills and knowledge."

As yet another former student put it: "I often hear people who went to college say it was a waste of time because they could never apply what they had learned to their job. I never felt this was true because I was very well prepared, due a great deal to what I had learned from Dr. Dawson. It was easy to transfer the skills I learned in college to my job because the tools and procedures I used in college were similar to those being used in my job. I was much more prepared to enter my field than other people I met."

Dawson's former students also lauded her for being a caring, supportive mentor and devoting long hours of service in and out of the classroom. One alumna from Japan noted that Dawson even took her in for a week following knee surgery, giving her a place to stay and helping her out until she could walk again by herself.

Prior to coming to WMU, Dawson taught at Indiana University, Kentucky Wesleyan College and the Battle Creek (Mich.) Public Schools. She received a bachelor of science degree in physical education from WMU in 1969, a master of science degree in physical education from Indiana University in 1974 and a doctor of philosophy degree in biomechanics from IU in 1979.

Dawson regularly attends conferences and professional workshops to expand her expertise and has developed numerous videos and computer programs for instructional and research purposes at WMU and other institutions. She has written or co-written more than 30 articles for refereed journals and has presented her findings at dozens of conferences.

Her professional and academic affiliations include membership in the American College of Sports Medicine; the Biomechanics Academy; the Measurement and Evaluation Council; and the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

Harris came to WMU in 1985 and has done extensive research on Spanish women playwrights and contemporary Spanish theatre. She was a student advisor for 12 years and since 1999, has headed the Spanish section of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures as well as served as faculty director of the University's study abroad program in Burgos, Spain.

"In the classroom, Dr. Harris conveys the subject matter in a style that is both interesting and easy for the students to understand," one graduate wrote when nominating her for the Teaching Excellence Award. "Dr. Harris' motivation is for her students to be successful. Consequently, throughout the semester she adjusts her teaching style to better meet the needs of individual classes."

That emphasis on being a good teacher earned praise from faculty members as well as students, with many nominators elaborately detailing her tireless efforts to always be available to students.

"In contrast with so many young and even older academicians who perceive research and writing as the sole focus of their careers, Dr. Harris devotes most of her energy to the educational enterprise," one colleague wrote. "Although she is a well published scholar, she has never lost sight (of the fact) that the professor's essential purpose is to teach and to do so well" Such abundant enthusiasm has prompted many former students to modify their educations to make Spanish a focal point of their careers. In fact, their were 35 Spanish majors when Harris began serving as advisor and more than 200 when she left the position.

"My interaction with her was a strong reason I decided to continue studying Spanish," explained one student who first met Harris as a freshman taking Spanish 201. "Presently, I'm completing the master's program in Spanish literature at WMU, and ironically, I have been given the honor of teaching Spanish 201 this year. Dr. Harris is a role model that I hope to emulate. She is a mentor to me as I begin teaching. She is always available to answer questions, offer ideas or feedback, and simply listen."

Another of Harris' former undergraduate students went on to become the first graduate assistant for WMU's master's program in Spanish.

"She has influenced me greatly as my Spanish instructor, mentor, officemate and friend," the alumnus wrote. "I cannot think of a more humble, unassuming yet tremendously inspirational person in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Her dedication to her subject and to her students is a joy to behold."

Harris has taught at the University of Richmond in Virginia; the University of Iowa; the Instituto de Politénico in Toledo, Spain; and Bryan Junior-Senior High School in Omaha, Neb. She received a bachelor of science degree from Iowa State University; licenciatura from the Universidad Tecnológica in Monterrey, Mexico; and both a master of arts degree and a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Iowa.

In addition to receiving numerous scholarly honors and research awards from WMU, Harris has written one book as well as numerous bibliographies, journal articles and reviews. Her professional activities have included work on the editorial board for Estreno, a journal of contemporary Spanish theatre; on departmental and College of Arts and Sciences committees at WMU; and as a reader for the Spanish Advanced Placement Exam.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu


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