Known on campus for the ingenuity of his speeches, University President Ron Thomas’ words during the Fall Faculty Dinner are no different. Each year, he introduces the recipient of the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and taking his time, he is careful not to give away the recipient’s name too quickly. Established in 1998, the award recognizes faculty members who inspire and challenge students through their passion for teaching. Toward the beginning of his speech, President Thomas purposefully uses non-gendered pronouns to veil the identity of the recipient, but gradually becomes more clear. When he announced that this year’s recipient “went to Costa Rica and found Chinatown,” it was over, and heads turned toward our very own Professor Monica Dehart, recipient of the 2014 President’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor DeHart the first week of the semester, and asked her some questions regarding her recent award, her research, and her passion for teaching. I hadn’t visited Professor DeHart’s office since the fall of 2013, when I was a student in her Ethnographic Methods class, so we briefly caught up before talking about her award.
As an undergraduate, Professor DeHart studied at the University of California-Davis, and then received her Masters and Ph.D at Stanford in 2001. While many of her colleagues from graduate school found positions at other large universities, Professor DeHart began teaching at UPS in 2004. A decade later, when I ask her what differences she sees between a research university and teaching at a smaller liberal arts school, she brings up classroom sizes. At her alma maters, lecture halls could easily number in the hundreds. This semester, her Introduction to Latin American Studies class has 28 students, which is actually more than most other courses (which usually total about 15-20 students) that she has offered in the past. This makes it really easy to get to know her students, and the experience of teaching becomes more about their relationship in the classroom, rather than simply talking at them. “All of the classes on this campus are interactive,” Professor DeHart explains.
In her own classroom, the intention is to offer “the relationship between complex theories and their real-world stakes,” and when I asked Professor DeHart what the intersection was between her research and teaching material, her response made it clear that the subject matter and problems which she posed to students were directly related to her own experiences in the field. In 2010, she published her book Ethnic Entrepreneurs: Identity and Development Politics in Latin America, examining ethno-development and how indigenous and migrant communities had become seen as valuable development agents in the 1990s. At UPS, we especially see this research agenda reflected in the Latin American Studies program, which she currently directs. Last spring, she co-taught a class with IPE professor Emelie Peine on the strengthening developmental ties between China and parts of Latin America, merging both of the professors’ specializations into a single course.
Students who have had Professor DeHart as a professor comment on her logical approach to problems, and her ability to challenge students in creative ways. “Because she pushes me so hard, and because of that personal connection, I don’t want to let her down,” senior Elise Zeidman said, adding that “I think a lot of students feel that way.” Although her classes are challenging, Professor DeHart strives to make them irreverent and fun, even with the more difficult material. Although her classes allow her to explore her own research interests, helping students make connections through her work in three different academic programs, and training young ethnographers, there is an ultimate reason why Professor DeHart is in the classroom. “I just really like to teach,” she noted — “that makes it pretty easy.”
Congratulations to Professor DeHart!
SOAN Senior, Class of 2015