That wondrous feeling of learning something new

Tse Yang Lim ’11 offered these comments about his teacher, Professor Stephen Stearns, at the DeVane Award ceremony in February.

I am an undergraduate biology major in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Professor Stearns, too, is a biologist in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. As biologists, we often think about evolution. One of the key concepts in evolution is the idea of fitness, which loosely speaking is the ability to survive and produce successful offspring, and thereby pass your genes on to the next generation. It is, in a sense, the vehicle of evolution and progress. Professor Stearns understands this, of course — for one thing, he has two highly successful offspring of his own — but that’s not what I’m referring to here. You see, despite some of Professor Stearns’ own work, which has shown that human beings are in fact evolving to become shorter and heavier, most contemporary human evolution is arguably intellectual rather than biological. As a good Darwinian, Professor Stearns has aimed to increase his intellectual fitness as well. And how does one do that — pass on our collective intellectual legacy, invest in our collective future, and further progress? Well, by teaching.

Every DeVane Medallist is an outstandingly good teacher. Professor Stearns easily lives up to this standard. As his nominations attest, his classes are engaging, his lectures crystal clear, and regularly give students that wondrous feeling that comes only from truly learning something new, a bit like one’s head is about to explode — in a good way, of course.

But that is not why Professor Stearns is here tonight. He is here because of something far more impressive — because he truly cares about, and applies his powerful mind to, the art of teaching.

One of his stated principles in teaching is to help students become colleagues as rapidly as possible. Think about it. It’s an ambitious goal, one which gets to the heart of the academic endeavor; and yet Professor Stearns lives up to and surpasses it. He insists that students think for themselves, and always values students’ questions and ideas, which he’s more than happy to hear over open lunches each week; and yet he’s not afraid to speak from his own vast knowledge or experience, recognizing that the role of the teacher (in his own words) is to design “a structure that is effective for learning because it exploits the innate interests and motivations of students, then knowing when to shut up and get out of the way.” Professor Stearns is a master of this fine balancing act, and still always ready to find ways to improve.

Now, I’m going to try and practice the latter part of that — shut up and get out of the way — but first, I want to talk about why. Why does he do it? We evolutionary biologists are often criticized for having a cold, calculating view of the world, and I may have made Professor Stearns sound that way — teaching for the sake of intellectual fitness and all that — but that’s not why he does it. I am no poet, so I’m going to tell you why in his own words, which I and anyone else who’s been taught by him can attest are true. And I quote: “I care because if I have a day in which I have seen a student’s eyes light up on encountering an amazing idea, or in which I can see a student progress in thinking, writing and speaking with clarity and grace, or in which a student grows in any other way because of something I have said, done, or arranged, I feel better that very night.... The more I have invested in teaching, the better it feels to do it: it has put value into my life.”

It is for these reasons above all else — for caring and thinking so deeply about teaching, for recognizing its importance and its challenges and its rewards, that it is my great pleasure and honor to name Professor Stephens Stearns as the recipient of this year’s DeVane Medal.