May 22, 2006
'83 DC grad Michael Emerson wins teaching award
By B. J. Almond
This year’s recipient of Rice University’s most prestigious teaching award can vividly recall his social psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
Michael Emerson, the recipient of the award, is a 1983 graduate of Dassel-Cokato High School, who teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He and his wife, Joni Severson, have four children.
“(Emerson) came into class one day with his tie on his head and his shirt open down to his belly button so you could see the chains he was wearing,” said Michael Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology at Rice. “He made the point that we would think differently of him if he dressed this way all the time. His creativity in teaching stood out.”
Now, it’s Emerson’s teaching that stands out, as evidenced by his being awarded the 2006 George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The awardee is chosen on the basis of survey responses from alumni who graduated two and five years ago.
Whether he’s teaching courses on race and ethnicity, the sociology of religion, statistics and methods, or urban sociology, Emerson strives to relate the material to his students’ lives. “It’s a constant challenge to keep up with cultural changes,” he said, noting that he comes from a different generation than his students. “But having teenage children has helped immensely.”
Being authentic is one of the essential ingredients of successful teaching, according to Emerson. “You can read a lot of books about teaching and take courses, but at the end of the day, what matters is whether you truly care about your subject and your students,” he said. “I try to live what I’m teaching, and I want my students to apply it in their own lives.”
A member of Rice’s Department of Sociology faculty since 1999, Emerson left during the 2004-05 academic year to teach at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. But he came back last year because he missed the Rice students.
“There’s no comparison,” he said. “I had been spoiled by Rice students. They’re the best students in the country. They’re very hard-working and respectful, and they really want to learn. They’ll get angry if you’re not teaching them enough. That doesn’t happen in most places.”
When Emerson isn’t immersed in teaching, he’s likely to be conducting research or writing a book. He has co-authored “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” which won the 2001 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, “United by Faith” and “Against All Odds.” His latest book, “People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States,” was published just last month.
In addition to a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Loyola, Emerson has a master’s and a doctorate in sociology from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His research has focused mainly on the role of race in shaping social action in the US, especially in regard to health, residential segregation, and the institution of religion.
Emerson said he is delighted to be back at Rice, where he is also director and founder of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life. In fact, he said his enthusiasm is much like that of new Rice head football coach Todd Graham’s, citing Graham’s statement that he feels like jumping out of bed on a pogo stick because he can’t wait to get to work.
“I love being here, and learning is a lot more fun for the students if they want to be here as well,” said Emerson, who also won Rice’s George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching in 2003.
“I think I’m a far better teacher at Rice than I would be elsewhere because the students are so good and eager to learn,” Emerson said. “I taught the same courses at Notre Dame, but it was a completely different feeling. They didn’t even laugh at my jokes.”