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Fall 2003

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Teaching for lifelong learning

Tough love. That’s Greg Pfitzer’s time-tested method for success in the classroom. Pfitzer, who chairs Skidmore’s American studies department, is this year’s winner of the Ralph A. Ciancio Award for Excellence in Teaching. “I don’t coddle students, nor do I suffer fools gladly,” he says, “but I am always available to those who put in an honest effort and are willing to accept criticism. Motivating C students to earn B is as important to me as nudging the A-minus student toward A.”
     Upon winning the Ciancio award, Pfitzer was “thrilled,” both for the recognition and because he’s honored to be in the company of previous winners John Anzalone (French) and Carolyn Anderson (theater) as well as Ciancio himself—“who was by all accounts one of the best teachers on the planet.”
     “Teaching is in my blood,” Pfitzer asserts. The son of a medical-school professor, he grew up “amidst bluebooks, mimeographed papers, and coffee-stained lesson plans.” He went to grad school on a Danforth Teaching Scholarship and has taught at every level from gifted and talented elementary-age students to senior citizens in Elderhostel programs.
     After teaching at Colby and Knox Colleges, Pfitzer came to Skidmore in 1989. He teaches, among other courses, Introduction to American Cultures, Hudson River Culture, The Machine in the Garden, and The 1960s. His primary interest is in the history of historical writing, a topic addressed in his most recent book, Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the Role of Visual Literacy in the American Imagination, 1840–1900. He is currently at work on a book-length study of the genre of popular history.
     In nominating Pfitzer for the Ciancio prize, his colleague Mary C. Lynn noted his consistently strong evaluations from students. “They routinely rank him as the best teacher they have had at Skidmore, or in their lives…he stretches his students, and they rise to the challenge.”
     Pfitzer makes a lasting impression on students from the get-go. He takes care to make sure the physical layout of his classroom is comfortable. He learns students’ home states before class even starts, so he has a point of conversation when he meets them. And within twenty-four hours of the first class, he memorizes each student’s name. He’s also taken them on overnight trips to study river communities, invited them to his home to discuss readings over home-cooked meals, and given them other opportunities to get personally engaged, “to take responsibility for their own learning.”
     For his Opening Convocation address, relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the summer reading for the incoming class of 2007—Pfitzer planned to “emphasize the importance of approaching college as if one were entering the world anew, like Frankenstein’s monster.”
     And if past student observations are any indication, Pfitzer will be right there helping his undergraduates adapt to their new surroundings. “Who else could make a 9 a.m. intro class fun?” quizzes Jennifer Nathan ’03, an American studies major who says Pfitzer exudes remarkable energy and enthusiasm. Adds Alexis Reynolds ’03, one of Pfitzer’s advisees, “To help clarify his points, he uses tapes of old radio shows, video, illustrations, newspaper clippings, and historical artifacts.” Megan Williams ’04, Pfitzer’s student assistant, respects his “willingness to learn from students” and his modesty: “If ever he doesn’t know the correct response to a question, he readily admits it. He then researches the subject and delivers an answer during the next class meeting.”
     Pfitzer, who’s attended his share of lectures weak and strong, and engaged in discussions both lively and dull, says, “I think the best teachers are those who can convey their love and passion for learning, using the skills and techniques most suited to their personalities.” And since the dynamics between class members vary from class to class, being flexible helps. “I’ve rarely taught the same material twice in the same way,” he notes.
     “Good teaching,” Pfitzer adds, “begins with respect. I try to respect students as people anxious to learn rather than as petitioners in pursuit of a grade.…I have had success over the years with some of the best Skidmore students, but my greatest triumphs have been with mediocre students. I try to remember that some students bloom late in their academic careers. I monitor the slow-starters over their entire Skidmore experience and remind them at graduation of the skills they’ve developed, even if their names do not appear on the honor rolls.”
     And after they graduate, Pfitzer tries to stay in touch with his students, encouraging them to “think of learning as a lifetime pursuit and imagine me as their lifelong collaborator.” —MTS

 


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