Faculty Member Receives Morse-Alumni Award

Each year since 1965-66, the University of Minnesota has recognized a select group of faculty members for their outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. This honor is awarded to exceptional candidates nominated by colleges in their quest to identify excellence in undergraduate education.  In addition to honoring individual faculty members, the award contributes to the improvement of undergraduate education at the University by publicizing their work to serve as a resource for the whole faculty. In 2020, Earth & Environmental Sciences Professor Justin Revenaugh was a recipient of this award, but the ceremony was delayed until this fall semester due to the pandemic. 

Justin Revenaugh receiving award
Photo credit
Donna Whitney

“I've always believed that if I'm not enjoying teaching then there's very little chance students are enjoying my teaching”

Professor Revenaugh started his faculty career at UC-Santa Cruz, teaching his first class in 1990. As a graduate student, he had never held a position as a teaching assistant, so his first quarter as faculty was to be his first time in front of a classroom ever. "That was daunting, to say the least," Revenaugh remembered. "The content was easy enough but I aimed way over the tops of students' heads, and just made a mess of it." Now, in his thirty-second year of teaching, his comfort in the classroom has greatly improved, as has his understanding of what is needed to teach well–“you need to motivate students to learn, and I wish I had started off with more tools to do that.” 

Along with the comfort of being in front of students also comes enjoyment. “My favorite aspect [of teaching] is interacting with students. I love it, and when people come to office hours, I always really appreciate that. The talks before and after class, I really enjoy." However, Revenaugh also acknowledges that not every student is comfortable with speaking with their professors face to face, and offers those students alternatives. “I [try to] give students different ways of interacting with me… but I also try to break down the barriers a little bit." Revenaugh emphasizes the importance of putting himself out there. “At the beginning of every semester I have this little thing called get to know your professor. It’s a hoot! It’s 10 questions where nobody should know the answers, just weird things about where I grew up or what music I like. But it’s just to put myself out there so it’s like I’m not anything special, I’m just another person. I’m perfectly happy to have people laugh at me. I’m not just the doctor professor up in front of the class, I’m just the person who’s leading, but not different."

More than 30 years of teaching has brought its fair share of lessons. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t stop facing students. I try to be looking at [the students] as much as possible. I’ve slowed way down…What you come to realize is the more you try to teach the less people learn. You have to spend time on what’s important and don’t rush things…I’m much more into storytelling, because I think students remember things better when there’s a narrative associated with it, rather than just an isolated fact…I include a lot more graphics. I used to think a real good definition was what people need. Now I’ve realized that a real good diagram is what people need." Though none of these lessons were ever taught to Revenaugh as a student, he has spent years learning through experience, listening to the feedback of his students, paying attention to what works well and what doesn’t, all well working to create an environment that students are able to thrive in. This is not an easy task especially for the large 1xxx level courses Revenaugh has been teaching in recent years. 

Cultivating environments where students succeed has been made all the more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve gone hybrid…It means that you’re not given the chance to interact with the students, you know. If they’re watching a canned recording there’s nothing you can do to look out at them and see that they’re confused and then help them. You just can’t." However, the new hybrid environment has also had positive effects. “There are a lot of advantages with accessibility, and certainly for non-traditional students." It also gives professors the opportunity to develop new styles of teaching and create new teaching resources. “I’m going to start doing more things as add-ons to class. I will still go to class Tuesday/Thursday and do my 75 minutes but I’ll start building a library of other tools that students can access. The idea will always be that you can get it all from the lectures but if the lecture didn’t do it for you, here are some extra resources." Hybrid also allows for the exploration of new teaching software. “I’ve been doing a lot of Kahoots lately. Students seem to think that’s fun. I’ve gotten into the habit of [stopping] over at the little snack shop over in Wiley before class and I buy Twinkies or something for the winner. So they’re excited to see what the junk food option is going to be for whoever wins.”

Revenaugh's dedication to teaching and to students has long been appreciated by the department, and now has been formally recognized by the University. Despite receiving the prestigious Morse-Alumni award, Revenaugh remains humble. “It was just a nice recognition. I think to a greater or lesser degree a lot of us have imposter syndrome, and you sort of think ‘Oh. I am not really a good teacher’...But I’m 59, and I’m getting into the tail end of my career. Awards come far less often as you get older, and so it was very nice to pick one up at the end here.”

The award, named for a former dean of General College, is made possible through generous support of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

Learn more about about the Morse-Alumni Award.

Full list of 2020 & 2021 recipients