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UMNews: Duluth’s distinguished teachers


One of the students who nominated University of Minnesota Duluth marketing professor Stephen Castleberry for a 2009 Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association (Morse-Alumni) Award describes Castleberry’s teaching style as one that “has a way of making sense in real world scenarios,” rather than one that just presents factual material that he as a student couldn’t relate to.

You could say the same for Carmen Latterell and Justin Henry Rubin, two other Duluth faculty members who also were honored with Morse-Alumni Awards this year. Latterell, an associate professor of mathematics, is known for teaching not just mathematical facts, but modeling for her students how to be scholar-mathematicians.

Rubin, an associate professor of music, has made it his mission to give his students something he missed as an undergraduate composer — venues for orchestrating their musical works and seeing and hearing them performed by nationally prominent musicians.

The three were among eight University of Minnesota faculty who were honored this spring for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education at the annual Distinguished Teaching Awards ceremony. While their disciplines differ, Castleberry, Latterell and Rubin share a remarkable gift for empowering students by helping them recognize and try out their own inherent talents.

A colleague of Rubin’s describes this gift as an “ability to relate to, and guide the student in such a way that the student continues to make progress in the direction of his or her interests.” In Latterell’s classroom, says a former student, it manifests itself as an environment of “mutual respect between instructor and students, woven by a scholarly thread.”

A former student of Castleberry’s points to an amalgamation of skills: “being a content expert in his field, finding the best in individuals, giving them a chance to shine, acknowledging their successes, coaching for opportunities to improve, mentoring students to achieve their goals, and supporting their ongoing successes as their lives extend far beyond the classroom.”

At its essence, it boils down to a very student-centered approach — focusing on who students are (even if they themselves don’t quite know it yet), and giving them the opportunity to discover and experiment with their interests and gifts.

One of Latterell’s strong interests is the mechanics of how students actually learn. A colleague notes that primary goals of Latterell’s research and publications are to promote understanding of how people best learn, identify the obstacles or challenges that students commonly face, and arrive at innovative ways of teaching the subject matter. In pursuit of those goals, she gravitates to teaching 1000-level courses — what she refers to as “the pipeline” — the time when students make the transition from high school to college mathematics.

Being in tune with students as they struggle to find their “intellectual home base” has a strong impact on those she teaches, and gives them the confidence that they do in fact possess the skills they need to overcome their own particular obstacles.

A former student who is now an instructor at a major state university says simply, “She has shaped the way that I interact with the students I teach.”

Justin Rubin works hard to show students — even non-music majors who may only be fulfilling a liberal education requirement — how much of a role the arts play in their world, and how they, in turn, impact the artistic process. A colleague reports that many of Rubin’s students say they “learned to appreciate how art — whether performing, written, or studio — cannot be divorced from what is happening politically, culturally, and historically during the life of the artist.”

For those who choose to pursue music, Rubin makes certain they have opportunities to maximize their creativity and improve their skills.

Recalling his days as an undergraduate, Rubin says, “I still remember that one of the most difficult aspects of developing myself as an artist was trying to find other student musicians that had the time and patience … to put together my original works for performance. This is key for any student composer, as working with live musicians is the choice situation for improving writing.”

If Stephen Castleberry were to teach a music course, he’d point out that people aren’t always going to play the notes as written and might even hit a few wrong ones.

In his Marketing Research and Fundamentals of Selling courses, he impresses on his students how fluid, unpredictable and even unethical markets and people can be.

Ethics and empathy are big topics. He’s taken students on field trips to federal prison camps so they can learn from those who’ve made poor choices, and he orchestrates curve balls in the role-playing students do in his classroom. A student relates that Castleberry would tell them, “This isn’t about just presenting. It’s about helping your buyer solve his or her problem with your service.”

Just as his students constantly adjust their sales pitches as their “clients” respond in the role-playing, Castleberry is constantly adjusting his subject matter. Colleagues report he is continually in contact with former students, sales people, managers, executives, entrepreneurs, and strategic thinkers in the for-profit and not-for-profit world, asking, “How are you training and being trained? What is cutting edge? What is coming down the road? What should I be teaching my students?”

Says a student, “He definitely is committed to providing his students with the most up-to-date, accurate, beneficial information to better their education.”

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