Russell O. Colson - Acceptance Speech

2010 Outstanding Master’s Universities and Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year
Professor of Anthropology and Earth Science
Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead, Minn.

No honor of this stature can be the work solely of one person. I don't have time to list everyone who contributed to this award, but I would like to thank five groups of people and give for each just one example of a lesson I that learned from them. Five thank yous--five lessons.

Thank you to my friends and family. My parents first showed me that if you want to teach someone anything, you have to first truly care about them a great deal. Caring leads to building community, through humor, through sincerity, through personal concern for students. My wife, a middle school science teacher, told me once to "laugh with your students."  Great advice. I play learning games in my classes, make ice cream during labs on phase equilibria and invite my research group to my home each spring for a cookout. Dr. James Comer, who has studied relationship and teaching extensively, wrote that, "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."

I would also like to thank my teachers. I'm going to highlight only one of many great mentors-Dr. Merrill, my undergraduate stratigraphy professor. His class launched my journey toward a style of lecturing in which I present "thought puzzles" that my students and I solve together. These thought puzzles focus our thinking on how we learn, not on what we know. My university sits in the Red River Valley of the North, once filled by the prehistoric Glacial Lake Agassiz. Louis Agassiz, the great Earth science teacher of the 1800s, after whom the lake was named, once said, "The book of nature is always open."  He meant that understanding of the Earth is found in reading the Earth, not in knowing the textbooks.

Thank you to my colleagues who have provided support and many great ideas for interacting with students. My first academic dean, who took me under her wing when I arrived at MSUM as the university's first geologist, told me once, "You seem to be a good coach."  I liked that image. A coach encourages, instructs and pushes to excellence. A coach doesn't just teach the rulebook, but how to play the game, practicing and doing, not simply hearing and knowing.

I especially want to thank my students. The theme of my teaching might be summarized as "my students and I do science together."  This award is theirs as much as mine; teaching and learning are what we accomplish together. They make me a student with them, keeping me passionate and excited in learning. They remind me that learning is about wonder as well as understanding. Since my first days at Minnesota State University Moorhead 17 years ago, I've kept this now-tattered picture in my office to remind me to be a student at heart and not forget the joy of discovery.

Finally, thank you CASE, Carnegie Foundation, TIAA-CREF, Phi Betta Kappa and other sponsors for honoring me and my students in this way. Teaching is an intense endeavor and its product intangible. Often our real accomplishment flies beneath the radar. We sometimes need encouragement and affirmation. There are many great teachers pouring out their hearts and minds to students; many without winning awards. But I hope this honor, this "thank you," gives me renewed energy for this great calling of teaching and provides everyone the renewed confidence that good teaching is indeed valued and that what we do, even when it sometimes flies beneath the radar, matters a great deal.

Thank you.


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