2014 is ‘Year of faculty’

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Dr. Gordon Birrell sports one of his signature unusual ties during a discussion with his German Literature students. Photo credit: Claire Kelley

The bells of SMU’s Fondren Science Building ring out an old hymn, reminding the campus that it’s noon. Gordon Birrell walks into his German literature class, chats with a few students individually in German, then begins the hour by announcing that he won’t be administering a midterm, a statement that’s met with a cheerful chorus of “dankes,” “thanks” in German.

Today, the professor is sporting one of his signature unusual neckties, a maroon one covered in lions, zebras and giraffes.

“My favorite is the gorilla tie because I didn’t notice until my junior year that the big silverback gorilla has a little gorilla under its arm,” senior Madi Spence said.

Spence, a biology and German double major, has been one of Birrell’s students since her first year at SMU. Spence said she appreciates Birrell’s brilliance and involvement in his students’ lives, in addition to his charismatic wardrobe.

Whether it’s their clothing or their kind gestures or their senses of humor, professors at SMU in every department are inspiring their students. As a part of its Second Century Celebration, SMU has declared 2014 “The Year of the Faculty,” during which the university will recognize extraordinary achievements by its staff.

The faculty is made up of more than 700 full-time professors, so it’s impossible to give each one a shout-out. The efforts of good teachers, however, do not go unnoticed by their pupils.

Professor Mark Fontenot, for example, is a favorite among computer science students. Trevor Youngblood, a senior who decided to major in the field, appreciates Fontenot’s proficiency in teaching students who have no prior knowledge of the material.

“I went into his class knowing absolutely nothing,” said Youngblood, “and I came out confident in my programming abilities.”

First-year JD Francis is another fan of Fontenot and values the way he makes himself accessible to his students. He’s had breakfast with the professor several times, and the first morning was particularly memorable. Fontenot’s students convinced the restaurant staff that it was

his birthday.

“They brought him out some dessert and he was really mad at all of us,” Francis said. “And there was a balloon guy who brought [him] a balloon hat.”

Fontenot isn’t the only professor who dedicates time outside his teaching schedule to students. History professor Jeremy Adams hosts a weekly teatime in his home. Senior history and philosophy major Ali Aenehzodaee calls Adams his history department mentor. He recalls a day during his freshman year when he went to Adams’s office hours to ask a simple question about an assignment.

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“I didn’t even get to ask the question,” Aenehzodaee said. “He sat me down and talked to me for two hours, just about everything. So we built a relationship and it’s really meaningful to me.”

First-year Katy Perry attributes her decision to major in psychology to her Introduction to Psychology professor, Dr. Mary O’Boyle. She brought bagels to class the day of the final exam and held review sessions every Sunday night before tests.

“There weren’t very many people that showed up, maybe four out of the whole class,” Perry said. “That she cared enough to do that really made an impression on me.”

Other students are attentive to their professors because they support the same causes. Economics professor Beth Wheaton is CEO of a nonprofit organization called Equip the Saints and works to raise awareness about issues like human trafficking and child labor.

Sam Ligon, a first-year marketing major, approached Wheaton one day wanting to learn more about the work she’s doing. They met for coffee and Wheaton spoke about an award she had received and her reluctance to deliver the acceptance speech in front of an audience.

“She’s introverted but she doesn’t act that way in class,” Ligon said. “She’s one of those best friend teachers.”

Then there are professors whose quirks are enough to keep students entertained. Junior Troy Castle’s favorite professor, Dr. Larry Ruben in the biology department, is kind to his students and straightforward about exam material. But Castle’s favorite trait about Ruben has nothing to do with either of

those things.

“He wears socks and sandals every single day to class,” Castle said. “Rain or shine, jeans or shorts, it’s always socks with sandals.”

Students can browse featured professors and submit their own praise and anecdotes at SMU’s Year of the Faculty Blog.

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