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ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty members awarded for excellence in teaching

James Blasingame (left), professor in the Department of English, has been awarded the Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award for the humanities division.

April 25, 2018

As another academic year winds down, Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is awarding faculty members who have gone far beyond expectations to facilitate scholarly excellence and create memorable academic experiences for their students.

The Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award was established in memory of Zebulon Pearce, who graduated from the Territorial Normal School at Tempe (now ASU) with teacher’s credentials in 1899. The awards recognize faculty within the college who demonstrate teaching excellence.

For the spring 2018, the college has named three honorees based on their contributions to the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, and their dedication to student success.

The winner from the humanities division is James Blasingame, professor in the Department of English. Melissa Wilson Sayres, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, is the winner in the natural sciences division. The social sciences division winner is Jennifer Sandlin, associate professor in the School of Social Transformation.

In addition, the college honored Carolyn Cavanaugh-Toft, lecturer in the Department of Psychology, with the Liberal Arts and Sciences Outstanding Lecturer Award for 2018.

Meet this year’s awardees:

James Blasingame

Blasingame has been a professor in the Department of English since 2000, after spending 24 years coaching, teaching and working in administration in secondary education. Since joining the Sun Devil family, Blasingame has focused on young adult literature, indigenous education, secondary writing instruction, preparing pre-service teachers and cowboy poetry. His love of literature and continuous learning are qualities that he hopes to instill in each and every student.

“At the heart of my teaching philosophy is the educational principle of student-centered learning,” Blasingame said. “The best curriculum and instruction fans the flames of passion in students such that they continue to seek further knowledge and grow in their understanding for the rest of their lives. It also actively engages them in their learning.”

He teaches the importance of lifelong learning to his students and has the desire to continue learning himself. Blasingame says he never wants to stop learning new ways to be a better teacher and meet his students’ needs. He emphasizes the fact that this is a world that depends on teachers to put out the best graduates they can.

“The love of teaching he exhibits is contagious, and his desire to see each of his students excel along their individual paths toward higher education is inspiring. It is a blessing to sit in his class each week,” said one of Blasingame’s students.

A professor who exudes passion in his work, Blasingame displays excitement and enthusiasm in his curriculum, engaging his students and making learning an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. His positivity and fun lectures provide an environment where students can thrive.

“[James] is a caring and creative educator,” said Krista Ratcliffe, English department chair. “[He] practices what he preaches: know your subject, know your students, adapt your teaching to your context, and never be afraid to show your passion for your subject or care for your students.”

Melissa Wilson Sayres

Wilson Sayres has been an assistant professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics at the School of Life Sciences since 2014. A computational biologist, she focuses on sex-biased biology and understands the difficulty of combining biology with computer programming. She takes her training and passion to teach to the next level, providing help to students struggling with the same difficulties she learned to overcome.

“As a mathematics major who became a computational biologist, I had not previously fully appreciated the terror that many life sciences students have when confronted with learning computer programming,” Wilson Sayres said.

In addition to teaching a combination of biology and evolution classes, Wilson Sayres says she hosts a series of extracurricular boot camps and short workshops on computer programming that are open to all undergraduates. Through these events, she has been able to experience face-to-face interactions with over 150 trainees, introducing them to computational techniques, command line and programming.

“Unlike the natural wonder often inspired by biology, computer programming is set upon a pedestal by popular culture and thus seems unattainable to many biology majors,” said Wilson Sayres. “I am driven to prepare our students to be not only competent, but competitive, in an increasingly computational world.”

Dedicated to improving the educational experience for students and providing the care and assistance to those who need it, Wilson Sayres has gone beyond minimal expectations and made an incredible impact on her students’ lives.

“I have often heard it said from other professors in the department that ‘students should take advantage of office hours because no one ever actually goes,’” said one student. “This is almost laughably incorrect for Dr. Wilson Sayres; each week there were consistently students standing because there were not enough chairs for everyone.”

Jennifer Sandlin

An associate professor in the Justice and Social Inquiry Department in the School of Social Transformation, Sandlin has been a member of the ASU family since 2007. Sandlin’s work focuses on the intersections of education, learning and consumption, which translates to the classes she teaches in education, popular culture and justice, and social and cultural pedagogy. In her teaching, Sandlin incorporates the different experiences of her students, creating a stimulating learning environment with diverse points of view.

“In my courses, I build upon learners’ vast and varied experiences with the concepts and practices of teaching, learning, social pedagogy, social justice and cultural studies that we discuss in class, as I simultaneously introduce them to new theories, research and practices of these fields of study,” Sandlin said.

Sandlin says she facilitates reflective learning among students through assignments where they can reflect on course readings and discuss how what they are learning impacts or engages with their own teaching, learning, work and life practices.

“I fully believe that undergraduate students can and should conduct research,” said Sandlin. “Learning to do research will be an asset to them no matter what career path they choose, and I regularly incorporate research projects in my undergraduate courses.”

Engaged in her students’ varied backgrounds and their common thread of the desire to learn, Sandlin displays the drive to incorporate studies and research into everyday life and provide an academic experience in which students can prosper and learn to make a difference.

“I have never met a teacher who has more passion and thrive to change the world than Jennifer Sandlin,” said one student. “Not only is she impacting lives in the classroom but she's impacting lives every day just by being an outstanding person with a passion to make the world a better place.”

Carolyn Cavanaugh-Toft

ASU alumna and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Cavanaugh-Toft has been making her mark on the university for over 20 years. Cavanaugh-Toft is a licensed psychologist, with an extensive background in clinical psychology. She has worked in various clinical and academic environments and heads the Early Start program for incoming psychology students.

“I bring a passion for the field of psychology together with an intense desire to help students learn,” Cavanaugh-Toft said. “I share my excitement in acquiring knowledge and want to inspire students to ask questions to better understand their world around them.”

Cavanaugh-Toft says she works hard to create a classroom environment where students feel understood, respected and supported in their efforts to understand and question things. Her open and fun approach to teaching creates an engaging space for students to learn and feel at home.

“Dr. C’s whimsical storytelling and deep knowledge of the material made it impossible to devote anything less than full attention to her lectures,” said one student. “Her enthusiasm for teaching is evident in each and every class session and her love of the knowledge associated with these courses is absolutely infectious.”

Cavanaugh-Toft’s dedication to her students and unique teaching style is displayed every day when she goes the extra mile in assisting those who are struggling. She says her storytelling approach to teaching challenges students in their thinking, motivating them to generate questions that promote deeper comprehension of concepts, while her use of humor and vivid imagery further engages students and helps them to enjoy the learning process.

“I repeatedly tell students that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and demonstrate respect for diverse ways of learning and being,” Cavanaugh-Toft said. “I hope to instill in them the skills and desire to critically evaluate the information they encounter so that they can become better students, citizens, and people.”

Award recipients will be honored at convocation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to be held at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 8 at Wells Fargo Arena.

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