Christine Wagner College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching 2010

Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching 2010

The College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching recognizes our faculty members’ many fine contributions in teaching, advisement and mentoring.  Nominees have completed at least three years of full-time instruction at Albany and have demonstrated exceptional contributions and sustained excellence in teaching and mentoring activity.  This year there were two winners: Duncan Cumming (Music) and Christine Wagner (Psychology).

Christine Wagner was a Psychology major here at Albany who went on to obtain her PhD in Neuroscience from Michigan State.  After some intervening postdoctoral and faculty work including a spell at UMass Amherst the pull of her alma mater became irresistible.  She’s been with the University since 2001.  She’s maintained an outstanding record of publication and external funding in her research in biopsychology – specifically work on neural development, hormones, and behavior.  She has been exceptionally engaged in professional, college, and university service; indeed she is this year’s Chair of CAS Faculty Council. Her instructional and mentoring in behavioral neuroscience spans lower division courses (including one that enrolls more than 200 students) through doctoral work.  She was a co-founder a new interdisciplinary minor in Neuroscience in which she serves as advisor. 

Christine’s teaching integrates psychology and the life sciences.  This semester she is teaching a course jointly with a colleague in Biological Sciences.  Subject matter in neuropsychology is challenging.  In her words it is “astonishingly complex,” and it’s intimidating to some students.  In the classroom she evidently succeeds in negotiating the fine line, as she puts it, between “demystifying” and “oversimplifying” complex material.  The cornerstones of Dr. Wagner’s teaching philosophy are extreme clarity of presentation and an effort to communicate her enthusiasm.  Students’ testimony shows that she succeeds.  One writes: “she has a passion for the subject that rubs off on her students.”

The materials in this case show that Dr. Wagner’s teaching methods are flexible and engaging, her tests rigorous, grade distributions appropriate, and student accomplishments impressive.  Her course evaluations are outstanding. This is particularly impressive in her large undergraduate which is clearly challenging to students.  She is clearly exceptionally self-aware about teaching and clearly succeeds in matching the style to the class.  Lecture segments are interspersed with other materials, including video clips and informal discussions, as she finds just the right pace to move ahead while still responding to questions.  The selection committee was particularly impressed by her approach in Advanced Behavioral Neuroscience where she uses the primary research literature instead of a conventional textbook.  This approach requires a lot of work for her and calls forth more effort from students.  One letter characterizes it as Socratic; she herself describes as a “return to basics” which encourages students to think critically and get away from the “textbook as gospel” mindset.  

Every semester she involves undergraduates in her research lab, sometimes working on their own projects, sometimes on Honors theses.  She also undertakes a good deal of writing-intensive instruction.  Students describe her as “inspiring,” “engaging,” “stimulating,” “fascinating,” “fantastic,” “helpful,” “passionate,” “an exceptional professor,” “a great teacher. She provides “Some of the best teaching I’ve ever had,” “She makes everything clear. Best professor I’ve ever had”  “Dr. Wagner is a fantastic instructor and has an incredible ability to “translate the class information into a comprehensible language for students”

One really notable measure of Christine’s success as a teacher and mentor of doctoral students is their extraordinary professional trajectory in postdoctoral work, funding, and placement as tenure-track faculty in highly ranked institutions.

I’ll let the last word go to a distinguished colleague in another department, who describes her teaching as “elegant, effective and an example of what a first rate undergraduate education should include … She … has generated an environment within which students can learn and grow, and has taught them priceless skills – reading, critical thinking, and the ability to express their thoughts clearly. What more can one ask?  This was the best class I have evaluated during my [more than 30] years at Albany.”

Christine Wagner
Psychology Department
Research Behavioral Neuroscience
Center for Neuroscience Research