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McCormick Professors, Lecturer Named

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May 17, 2005

Three faculty members have been named Charles Deering McCormick Professors of Teaching Excellence for three-year terms, beginning in the 2005-06 academic year.

They are David Abrahamson, Helen Gurley Brown Research Professor and director of the Center for the Writing Arts; SonBinh Nguyen, associate professor, Dow Research Professor in Chemistry and director of the Integrated Science Program; and Gail Williams, professor of music performance studies.

Ellen Wright, college lecturer in the Writing Program, has been named the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Lecturer. The Distinguished Lecturer serves for one year.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony at 4 p.m. today (May 26) in the Guild Lounge.

The McCormick awards recognize faculty “who have consistently demonstrated outstanding performance in the classroom” in the six undergraduate schools. All receive an annual salary supplement and serve as Fellows of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence.

The endowed professorships were established in 1991 with a $10 million gift from McCormick. The award recipients are chosen from nominations of undergraduate school deans. A student-faculty committee chaired by the Provost reviews the nominations, taking into consideration letters from deans, faculty colleagues and students.

Abrahamson joined the Medill School of Journalism faculty in 1994.

He teaches writing, editing and magazine publishing. His teaching method is both Socratic and interactive, assigning students rigorous "thought exercises." Abrahamson uses electronic listservs to remain in contact with his students. Students describe his teaching style as "riveting" and note "he honestly believes that every student in his class is a budding literary superstar." Abrahamson's influence on developing writers can be heard in student comments such as "Professor Abrahamson demanded total commitment and hard work from his students, and his exciting lectures, familiar style and bubbling enthusiasm made giving any less close to impossible." Abrahamson balances his professionalism with a commitment to student learning and research. He has published two books, including “Magazine-Made America,” an interpretive history of the magazine profession since World War II. He and his students have received numerous awards in writing contests. Abrahamson was instrumental in implementing the Summer Reading Project for incoming Medill freshmen and developed one of Medill's most sought-after courses, "Literary Journalism." He is a fellow of the Communications Residential College.

Nguyen joined the Northwestern faculty in 1996. A principal teacher of organic chemistry, he emphasizes critical thinking, total-synthesis and real-world problem solving. His students comment that his intellectual rigor, humor and dynamism make challenging courses both memorable and enriching. While lecturing, Nguyen engages students in vibrant exchanges, encouraging active acquisition of the material. Students laud him for his approachability and enthusiastic mentoring outside the classroom. They remark that he holds office hours for several hours on evenings before a test. Each year, Nguyen writes dozens of personalized letters of reference for his current and former students. To prepare them for the professional school application process and to get them to think about their profession and aspirations, he asks each student to prepare answers to intellectually difficult questions and go through mock interview sessions with him. Nguyen is an educational innovator; one student described his drive to individualize and refine his teaching as a process of "perfecting the perfect." His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation. He received a Sloan Fellowship, an NSF CAREER Award and a Packard Fellowship, among other research awards. Nguyen was awarded a Weinberg Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002 and was appointed to the ASG Faculty/Administrator Honor Roll in 2003 and 2004. He is a Fellow of the Residential College of Cultural and Community Studies and the Slivka Residential College of Engineering and Science.

Williams joined Northwestern's faculty in 1989 while still a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1998 she left the Chicago Symphony to teach full-time. In 1992 she became the University's principal Professor of French Horn, devising a rigorous "Syllabus of Horn Studies" for each year of private instruction. Williams takes an active interest in students from matriculation to graduation and beyond. Mentoring her students to become "their own best teachers," Williams applies a "cognitive apprenticeship" model of teaching, which recognizes that interpretations of musical lines and solutions to technical issues will be unique to each student. One undergraduate horn player describes her as "incredibly adaptable and exceptionally effective…a full person, not just a horn professor." Students invariably use the word "mentor" when praising Williams' teaching. An unflinching supporter of her student's ambitions, Williams has helped place many Music School graduates in the nation's most prestigious orchestras. Williams was the top prize winner of the Ein Heldenleben Contest in 1981. She has made numerous recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Summit Brass, and solo CDs. Currently, she is a founding member of both the Chicago Chamber Musicians and Summit Brass and performs as the Principal horn with the Grand Teton Music Festival and Saito Kinen Orchestra in Japan.

Wright joined the Writing Program in 1977 and has played a central role in the Writing Program, helping to bring it to national prominence. Her students describe her as accessible and ceaselessly encouraging; they praise her for her genuine interest in developing their individual voices as writers.  Wright pushes her students to take risks and experiment when writing, directing their attention to the process and craft, as well as to the end product. Her students commend her constructive criticism and feedback, noting that interaction with her is inspirational and transformative. She creates original instructional materials, which often are derived from her experience as a writer dealing with subjects ranging from Latin poetry to country music. Students across the disciplines credit her with radically improving their ability to use and enjoy writing in academic and professional settings. Wright has developed numerous writing-intensive courses and seminars, including the advanced undergraduate offering, Contemporary Women Writers. She frequently serves on Northwestern committees, advises undergraduates, mentors graduate students, and works with colleagues to improve the writing instruction in courses throughout the University.