Who Are Pittsburgh's Best Professors?
Whether they’re humanizing robots or illuminating human history, some of the finest minds working in higher education today can be found in Pittsburgh.
PHOTOS BY TERRY CLARK
You know who they are: the rock stars of campus, the ones whose classes you’d sell your eye teeth — and maybe your iPad — to take. They are the professors who haunt your memory at your first job after graduation, and your fifth. When you return to your alma mater, you stop by their office to check in. Chances are, they remember you. Whether they’re humanizing robots or illuminating human history, bringing life to the literature of Thomas Jefferson or the laws of thermal physics, some of the finest minds working in higher education today can be found in Pittsburgh. Regardless of academic discipline, these professors earn recognition for their innovation, creativity and dedication. And they share a common trait: an uncanny knack for demanding — and eliciting — the very best from their students. Pittsburgh’s growing reputation as a city predicated on its colleges and universities is rooted in the life’s work of people like these.
Scene Design, Carnegie Mellon University
When she’s not designing sets for a play or introducing third-graders to the world of theater, Anne Mundell is teaching students at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama how to be comfortable with the ambiguity that is inherent to the life of the artist.
“I’m always interested in the idea of the other, the outsider,” she says. “Carnegie Mellon is a place that is full of outliers.”
She fell into academia completely by chance, replacing a friend who was taking leave from Carnegie Mellon to work on a film. Twenty-six years later, she considers her students to be her greatest teachers.
When she first started instructing, she admits she felt awkward because she thought she had to be present with all the answers. Over time, she says she learned that her job was more about asking the right questions and challenging students to leave their comfort zones. Mundell wanted to walk the walk, so she tried to think of a discipline on campus that seemed to be the diametric opposite of theater. She chose robotics and proposed a collaboration about 10 years ago.
After some initial back and forth, the two departments collaborated to create robots, including “roboceptionists” with human characteristics. One, Athina, lives at the Carnegie Science Center; another, Tank, is stationed at the entrance to Newell-Simon Hall on campus and offers visitors directions.
Together with dramatic-writing students, Mundell came up with a backstory for Tank — he’s a failed spy satellite whose mission went awry when he was pointed in the wrong direction. An earlier version, Valerie, was programmed to talk about work, her mother, her love life and her psychiatrist. Students helped to create the animation and facial expressions.
“When you go into something like that, nobody has a real idea of what the capability of the other side is, and everybody’s a little reluctant,” says Mundell. “Theater is highly artistic and technical, so that kind of cooperation is central to me and central to the way I teach.”
Her list of former students includes Emmy winners and people who work on Broadway plays, amusement parks, museums and films, as well as installation artists, doctors and lawyers.
“We don’t know what’s coming next in terms of entertainment and storytelling, so we try to put our students into what I call creative cauldrons,” says Mundell. “We give them a task, throw a bunch of people and gear in a cauldron and see what comes out.”
History, University of Pittsburgh
If you know anything at all about baseball’s Negro League, chances are history professor Rob Ruck had something to do with it.
As a graduate student at Pitt in the late 1970s, Ruck had planned to write his dissertation about the rise and fall of unionism in the steel industry. A run along a trail overlooking the Homestead Works of U.S. Steel prompted him to change tracks. His running partner — Norris Coleman, an African-American man — looked down on the mill and asked if he’d ever heard of the Homestead Grays. With only a vague recollection of Satchel Paige and a handful of other players, Ruck went to a library to find out more. Unable to discover much beyond cursory mentions, he won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to research the Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, tracking down as many living Negro League alumni as he could.
Ruck wound up writing his dissertation on the role the league played in Pittsburgh before integration and how baseball united the identity of a people who had been geographically fractured and had grown increasingly diverse. Today, he teaches History of Sport at his alma mater, one of the first college courses of its kind.
“I think you can teach almost any aspect of history by looking at the evolution of sport,” he says. “People use [sport] individually and collectively to tell a story about who they are.”
Whether it’s Nelson Mandela using the 1995 Rugby World Cup to avert a racial bloodbath or Title IX redefining feminism, sports have become an arena for cultural influence beyond home runs and high salaries. Ruck — who has authored several books in the genre — now is working on a book about how football has influenced communities in American Samoa.
Ruck also works to restore public memory of the role African-American and Latin American players have assumed in shaping major-league baseball. In 1988, he successfully lobbied the Pittsburgh Pirates to commemorate this piece of the city’s forgotten history with a pre-game ceremony honoring the 40th anniversary of the last Negro League World Series. It was one of the first times any major-league team agreed to so public an acknowledgment. Since then, the Pirates have erected monuments to Pittsburgh’s Negro League stars — Paige, the North Side’s Josh Gibson and others — and have been forerunners in regularly instituting throwback nights in Negro League uniforms.
His belief is that Pittsburgh can find strength in reclaiming this part of its past: “I think when people know their story, it empowers them.”
Robert H. Swendsen
Physics, Carnegie Mellon University
To physics professor Robert Swendsen, learning about science does not necessarily mean spitting out the right answer. Rather, it’s about grappling with seemingly impossible problems and emerging from the struggle with a better understanding of the world.
At Carnegie Mellon, Swendsen has spent the better part of 30 years teaching students to embrace the struggle. He teaches the formidable Thermal Physics course, which studies how heat and temperature relate to energy and work. It’s a requirement for undergraduates in the physics department, and he makes no apologies about its difficulty. Daily homework is part of the method to his madness; instead of assigning one large problem per week, students must fight their Thermal Physics demons every night.
“If they have to produce something tomorrow, even if they don’t get it right, they’re primed. They’re ready to understand,” says Swendsen. “It keeps them up, it keeps them with me in what’s happening next. If they have fought through this, even if they get the wrong answer, that really doesn’t matter as much. They will remember the ideas; they won’t remember the equations.”
Underscoring his point is the fact that he draws some of his undergraduate exam questions from qualifying tests for graduate students — whose efforts Swendsen’s students routinely beat.
Swendsen has been so successful in kindling a love for difficult subjects that he single-handedly revived its sequel, Thermal Physics 2. The elective course had languished for decades because department administrators doubted anyone would volunteer for a second round of purgatory after enduring the required course.
To their surprise, at least half of approximately 40 students who take Thermal I now go on to take Thermal II, making it one of the department’s most popular electives. A handful pushed the envelope even further, asking for further independent study with Swendsen in self-designed courses affectionately known as “Thermal Physics 3” or “Thermal Physics 4.”
Former students frequently cite Swendsen as a key factor in their later success, and some use the textbook he wrote as a daily reference in graduate school and their professional lives. Swendsen is no slouch himself: This year, the American Physical Society awarded him its Aneesur Rahman Prize for computational physics.
Of his students, he says: “I want to get them into the idea of what science is, what the process is: Going after problems where the answer is not at the back of the book,” adding, “I’m trying to prepare them to solve problems that I can’t solve myself.”
English, Chatham University
William Lenz admits he always has indulged in a flair for the dramatic. It’s one of the secret pleasures of his teaching. In a lecture discussing Thomas Jefferson’s famous description of the Natural Bridge in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Lenz has been known to climb on his desk and then drop to his hands and knees, crawling to the edge of a precipice, as if to bring to life Jefferson’s uncharacteristic rush of emotion as he observes what he described as “the most sublime of Nature’s works.”
“I can just hear them thinking: ‘Is he going to fall?’” Lenz says, chuckling at the mental image of himself in professorial suit and tie, channeling Jefferson’s sudden vertigo and sense of humility within the natural world.
For more than three decades, Lenz has been reading and rereading the texts he teaches in his writing and literature courses at Chatham University, with an eye toward helping students to discover anew the works that have shaped generations of intellects. Witty and entertaining, he enjoys a deserved reputation as a tough but fair critic, starting with his first semester of composition students back in 1980.
Disappointed in the papers they’d handed in, he walked into the classroom, announced, “I know you can do much better than this,” and threw all of the papers into the wastebasket. “We’re going to do this again next week, and you’re going to do a much better job.” And then he walked out.
What keeps his students returning for more and citing him as one of Chatham’s most beloved professors is his dedication to drawing out their potential. He was instrumental in developing the university’s graduate programs and was the founding director of its scholars progr am. In his new role as dean of undergraduate innovation and special assistant to the president, he will tackle challenges related to Chatham’s identity shift from private women’s college to coed university. He performs research and writes.
Still, he will continue to teach. His office, which he personally painted bright pink, is decorated with scores of flamingos — gifts from former students that have become his signature. The fascination began on his first trip abroad with his students, to the Galapagos Islands, where he was spellbound by a flock of wild flamingos.
“At the end of the day, what I care about most is teaching, is the students. And part of what that office is does not threaten, but invites people in,” he says. “Alums who graduated 10, 15, 20 years ago still send me little notes, send me thank-you cards. That reminds me that my work is meaningful.”
Political Science, Carlow University
It is perhaps a measure of Allyson Lowe’s commitment to mentoring that her favorite course to teach is an introductory class in American government. She makes no bones about it: She’s there to win over students.
“It’s where you can capture students’ interest in the discipline,” explains Lowe, who heads the political science department at Carlow University. “It’s really where you begin to build advising and mentoring relationships with students.”
In her role as an adviser, Lowe helps students draw a roadmap designed to steer them toward success. Toward that end, her door is always open, and she works hard to create a safe environment where students can explore even the most abstract curiosity.
“Students often appear in my doorway and say, ‘I have this dumb question.’ Well, that’s why I’m here,” she says.
Since arriving at Carlow in 2009, she has created a pre-law program and a companion pipeline of career opportunities beyond the classroom, helping students envision and design careers in law that don’t simply end in being litigators. She brings them to a variety of settings — courtrooms, nonprofit advocacy groups and law firms, for example — and advises many of the students in the minor in pre-law studies that she designed. Her goal is to show students how to embark on a pathway at 18 that will set them up in four years to compete successfully for graduate or law school and jobs.
She also runs a summer academy called Pre-Law and Order for high-school and college-age women who are considering legal careers. They network with legal professionals, learn how to prepare a law school application, visit schools and work on test-taking, writing and critical-thinking skills.
Lowe’s research has focused on the inclusion of marginalized populations, such as immigrants and refugees in the United States and the Roma (gypsy) women of Europe.
“I’m looking for ways to help students find a voice for themselves,” she explains. “In my research, I’m interested in how women can find voice in very marginalized situations.”
Law, Duquesne University
Poking around a remote corner of northeastern Michigan over the summer, Duquesne Chancellor and law professor John Murray bumped into one of his former students. A week later, while waiting for a table at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, the same thing happened — another city, another student.
Murray seems to find former protégés wherever he goes — even as far away as Paris. And if he isn’t meeting someone he taught in the classroom, he’s often meeting someone who read one of the many legal texts he has authored or edited. He isn’t sure how many there are — he guesses 26, but he’s long since stopped counting.
“This is what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he says. “Ever since I was in law school, I wanted to be a law professor.”
Murray began his teaching career at Duquesne in the 1960s, leaving to become dean of Pitt’s law school — and later Villanova’s — before returning to Duquesne to serve as the university’s president from 1988 to 2001. Throughout that time, he never stopped teaching. During his presidency, he ate lunch in the faculty dining room nearly every day, grabbing whatever seat happened to be available and talking with his colleagues.
Considered one of the nation’s experts in contract law, Murray teaches courses that routinely are packed, with students vying for available spots.
“I think it’s interesting stuff, and I try to communicate that to the students. It’s critically important to me to be able to look out in the classroom and think perhaps the light has gone on in some brains and eyes,” he says.
His books are used in law schools across the country, shaping many of the nation’s legal minds as well. Though he credits the material with piquing students’ interest, his delivery also factors heavily into his courses’ popularity. Each year, Duquesne’s Public Interest Law Association holds a silent auction — its largest event — and lunch with John Murray always is a coveted prize.
When he’s not teaching, Murray spends his summers writing. In 2014, he has completed two books and is editing a third. He also reads roughly 1,000 cases related to contract law each year.
“One of the critically important things: You simply have to be in master command of the subject matter if you want to help the students,” he says. “Students come to the school for the added value of something they can’t get anywhere else. You have a genuine obligation to them to provide them with your hardest effort.”
Psychology, Carlow University
On a recent trip to Uganda, psychology professor Mary Burke accompanied a young woman on a back-to-school shopping trip that was anything but routine.
The woman, now 20, had been taken from her school at the age of 12 and given to a soldier. She spent three years enslaved to him, dreaming of returning to her education. As she and Burke moved through the streets, she declined an offer to buy clothing. It was books she wanted, only books. But she also accepted necessities: Sugar. Soap. A watch, so she could be on time for class. A backpack.
Her experiences had given her an edge, and she haggled over prices with merchants, protecting Burke — who would have paid the highest asking price for any item, not knowing any better — from her First World ignorance.
“She was looking out for me and not wanting to exploit me. I took that as a sign of capacity for empathy” and an ability to connect with others, says Burke, whose passion is manifested in a nonprofit organization she founded, the Project to End Human Trafficking. In Uganda, she works with civil war refugees and has helped to build a school and community garden.
Those experiences have shaped her work in teaching psychology to graduate students at Carlow University, where she developed the school’s first doctoral program, which was in her specialty, counseling psychology. Burke used the lens of social justice to shape the course of study, examining how related issues impact mental health.
Burke credits Carlow’s service- and justice-oriented culture with allowing her to infuse her classes with activism so she can frame questions her students are likely to address in their professional lives: How do you prevent such tragedies? How can you protect survivors of trauma? How can victims better plan for their futures in the wake of their suffering?
Burke also enjoys a strong working relationship with the FBI, which strengthens a local group she helped to start, the Western Pennsylvania Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition.
Her hope is that she is able to inspire her students to assume a sense of responsibility to one another, whether on a world stage or when dealing with interfamilial conflict.
“I really believe that we as human beings injure each other,” she says. “I don’t think we always do it intentionally. My hope is that I can in some way help be instructional in how we can heal through each other.”
PHOTO BY BRIAN MATTES
Biology, University of Pittsburgh
When undergraduates sit down on the first day of Rick Relyea’s Animal Behavior course, he gives them an unorthodox instruction: They are ordered to refrain from taking notes. Instead, he wants them to start thinking like scientists.
This crash course in the Socratic teaching method often terrifies students who have spent years living and dying by memorization, but Relyea believes they emerge as better thinkers. His goal is for students to learn the material so well that if they returned to his course five years later, they still could pass his exams.
“When you see it in action, you realize how incredibly useful it is,” he says of his note-free approach. He stands in a lecture hall filled with 60 or so students, all of them interacting, responding, engaging with each other and their professor. “That’s really what it is: Me up there, perhaps showing them a graph or a table of data, and they have to figure out why animals evolved into doing what they do. Sometimes, there is no right answer. But they have to think about potential experiments they could do.”
Relyea arrived in Pitt’s biology department in 1999 with a more traditional style. In those pre-PowerPoint days, he stood at a lectern with an overhead projector, looking at a sea of bored faces. He upgraded his graphics, but the somnolence remained.
Eventually with the guidance of one of his own professors at Syracuse University who used the Socratic method, he developed his own techniques. The switch proved wildly successful; though students spend the first few weeks in a state of marked discomfort, they routinely wind up naming Relyea’s class as one of the best they’ve taken.
Relyea also directs Pitt’s Pymatuning Lab, a 350-acre field research station on Pymatuning Lake in Crawford County. He has doubled the number of students using the lab in seven years, thanks in part to upgrades to facilities that include 20 buildings outfitted with labs, classrooms and living quarters.
Ten colleges and universities use the lab each year, as do research scientists from around the country. Students intermingle and collaborate during three-week-long classes in ecology and related fields, putting into practice what they only hear about in the classroom.
“They can see it, they can touch it, they can smell it,” says Relyea. “It [allows] students who often have only an urban or suburban background to appreciate nature more . . . It’s a remarkable experience because you’re out there all day, and at night you’re socializing with researchers from all over the U.S.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF BARTHOLOMAE
English, University of Pittsburgh
Whether he’s critiquing the work of freshmen or graduate students, professional colleagues or rank amateurs, David Bartholomae takes the business of writing very seriously. From the moment his students step into his class at the University of Pittsburgh, they can rely on one constant: He will treat their work with gravitas.
Named Pennsylvania Professor of the Year in 2013 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Bartholomae was instrumental in developing Pitt’s nationally recognized composition program as well as advocating that good writing is a critical skill, regardless of the student’s major. He created Pitt’s top-rated Writing in the Disciplines program, which integrates writing-intensive courses across academic departments in conjunction with their faculty.
“You don’t learn to write in one course in your freshman year,” he explains. Rather, writing should evolve within students’ academic disciplines throughout their careers, he believes.
Bartholomae makes no apologies for the rigor of his coursework. He’s not afraid to push students outside of their comfort zones because he believes difficult assignments will allow them to rise to the occasion.
“The moment of education is confronting something you’re not prepared to do, that you’re not prepared to read. You have to find a way,” he says. “I never go looking for simple things for undergraduates . . . It’s been a concern of mine from the very beginning, to take students seriously as intellectuals and academics.”
The author of the much-admired and widely cited essay “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae wants students to view writing as an engagement with an intellectual project.
“Writing is hard work, and it carries with it the burden of being hard work,” he says. And regardless of whether students continue to write after graduation, he believes they emerge from the process as better citizens: “They have learned to speak with strangers and to make sense of unfamiliar settings.”
M. Granger Morgan, Carnegie Mellon University: The head of CMU’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Morgan is an internationally recognized expert in climate change, energy and public policy addressing these issues. He directs the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making and specializes in developing methods that address uncertainty in quantitative policy analysis. Morgan also led the National Research Council committee that suggested tactics for making the U.S. power grid less vulnerable to attack.
Dale Huffman, Carlow University: An internationally renowned potter, Huffman heads Carlow’s art department. For more than a decade, he has hosted a pottery marathon called “Bowls in the Night,” in which students and local potters make bowls for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Just Harvest’s annual Empty Bowls dinner.
Temple Lovelace, Duquesne University: Lovelace, who teaches in the Department of Counseling, Psychology and Special Education, coordinates a program in Hazelwood in which she and Duquesne education majors provide after-school homework help, promote literacy and offer college preparatory resources for K-12 students.
Jonathan Pruitt, University of Pittsburgh: Quirky and highly animated, Pruitt teaches biological sciences at Pitt. He specializes in spiders and how variations in their personalities influence social organization and response to disaster. Smithsonian, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the BBC have featured him and his research after just three years at Pitt.
Can’t-Miss College Courses
From making movies to butchering meat, digging for dinosaur bones to deconstructing human emotion, there seemingly is no limit to what college students are doing in their coursework. Below is a sampling of some of the most innovative and memorable classes that reflect the wide spectrum of higher education in Pittsburgh:
Production III (Cinema), Point Park University: Juniors in Point Park’s Cinema Production program begin preparing for this fall semester course the previous spring, applying for positions such as producer, director, screenwriter and cinematographer. Seven selected producers pitch scripts to faculty and students and hire crews, who arrive on the first day of the course ready to start working on seven 10-minute films. The course culminates in a sold-out public screening at the end of the semester, which draws more than 300 people. Several Production 3 students also worked as interns on the documentary series “The Chair,” which Point Park co-produced; it will air on cable’s Starz network beginning Sept. 6.
Wyoming Field Studies, University of Pittsburgh: This course taught through Pitt’s Honors College occurs on a 6,000-acre tract the university owns outside Rock River, Wyo. Students camp out on the land and learn geology, paleontology, archaeology and ecology through its pristine dinosaur-bone-bearing beds, 9,000 years’ worth of Native American archaeology and an original section of the 1869 transcontinental railroad. The land has produced some of the most famous dinosaur discoveries in the nation, including the Diplodocus carnegii, whose skeleton now lives at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Sustainable Meat Production, Chatham University: Echoing Chatham’s legacy in environmentalism, this class — part of the Food Studies master of arts program — teaches students about meat production outside of conventional large-scale processing facilities. In partnership with Jamison Farm in Latrobe, students work hands-on at the farm, including spending time on the kill floor where meat is butchered. The objective is to help them think critically and philosophically about where meat comes from, what its production costs and how it impacts society.
Human Dignity, Carlow University: An honors course that is team-taught by communication professor Michael Balmert and social work professor Jessica Friedrichs, this course is not offered every semester but is well-received when it is. Students delve into such weighty issues as capital punishment, euthanasia and ethical behavior in health care to discover what really constitutes human dignity.
Integrated Product Development, Carnegie Mellon University: Taught jointly by faculty from Carnegie Mellon’s engineering, design and business programs, this capstone course partners interdisciplinary student teams with industry sponsors to create new products. At the end of the semester, each team develops models as well as product marketing and manufacturing plans. Several prototypes resulted in patents for the sponsors, some of which came to market, notably Navistar’s luxury big-rig truck cab, the Lone Star.
Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES), University of Pittsburgh: This freshman biology course, which began at Pitt in 2008, is now taught at roughly 70 colleges and universities around the country. In this class, students hunt for new phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. Those who successfully discover a new phage earn naming rights. To date, the course’s students have found more than 3,000 new phages, all catalogued in a database at Pitt, and they have been listed as coauthors of 10 scientific journal articles. The course has been credited with inspiring many of its students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.
Matching Money with Mission: Philanthropy and Society, University of Pittsburgh: Students taking this course at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs get to distribute an actual pool of grant money so they can put into practice the theories they learn about historic origins and modern-day realism of philanthropy. At the end of the course, organizations that received grants from previous years share the experience with the current class, reporting on what they were able to achieve with the funds.
Operating System Design and Implementation, Carnegie Mellon University: This rite-of-passage course in CMU’s Computer Science Department is so famous among tech types that those who get in often put it on their resumes. Students grapple with open-ended computer operating system design questions while simultaneously balancing that design with real-world details of how computer hardware actually works. They value detailed feedback from professors about their code, essentially the computer science version of a top-end literary critique. Some master’s students choose CMU in part to take this undergraduate course. If they can’t get in, they can join its perpetual waitlist and build a formal case to get in the next time around.