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2011 Dean’s Award: Aaron Thornburg

March 10, 2011
Aaron Thornburg

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching

Aaron Thornburg, a doctoral candidate in Cultural Anthropology, earned his B.A. from the University of Florida-Gainesville with high honors in 1993. He has also earned an M.Phil. in Linguistics from the University of Dublin, an M.A. in Anthropology from Brandeis University, and an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. His dissertation, titled "Imagining Irelands: Migration, Media, and Locality in Modern Day Dublin," is a study of Irish ethnic identity as it relates to Irish language use in media and school curriculum.

Aaron is considered by faculty to be "a model of dedicated, innovative teaching" during his time at Duke" who is "beloved by his students" and who is "a friendly, energetic, smart teacher who commits great thought and energy to his teaching." Faculty also note his ability to "win undergraduate trust and respect," a talent that is evidenced in student evaluations of his teaching. His teaching style is one that puts student discourse at the center, as one nominator explains, "For many college teachers, the classroom provides an opportunity to exercise and display a forceful, sometimes colorful personality. Not so Aaron. Instead, he allows the students to take center stage. He structures the seminar discussion and intercedes in it enough to provide it with direction and forward momentum, but manages never to interrupt or curb its flow. Aaron uses a relaxed style, occasional humor, and respect for their ideas to make the students utterly comfortable" with the result that the students feel ownership of the classroom discussion, and contribute to it with ease and confidence. Students note that Aaron is "really skillful at guiding discussion and pushing us further with questions." Aaron's ability to foreground student discussion is seen as a unique skill by a faculty member who states that "To foster such energetic and natural classroom discussion is a rare talent, one that many an experienced university teacher lacks."

Aaron's successful teaching style has been one that he has actively developed, taking advantage of multiple instructional technology and Teaching IDEAS workshops and participating in the Preparing Future Faculty program to enhance his knowledge and technique, and incorporating innovations in his classroom. For example, he taught his "Anthropology and Ethics" course in the Link, taking advantage of the video link-up technology there, in order to provide "interactive internet classes with seven major scholars of science and ethics professors, with students also reading their work." Not only was it something of "a coup to get these prominent thinkers to agree to be part of the course," it also required an immense amount of work on Aaron's part to plan the course. His success in this endeavor is reflected in comments from student evaluations, one of which included the comment that "This course had something for everyone. It comprehensively addressed the various ways in which anthropologists must apply ethical inquiry to their research. The instructor skillfully discussed issues and salient points, no matter what subfield of anthropology they arose from. I was able to invest a lot of time and energy into the assignments and readings in this course, but the high level of engagement never felt like a chore." Other student remarks underscore this comment, for example, "The class changed my understanding of the field of anthropology" and "Great course, great experience!"

In spite of the many accolades, Aaron believes that he still "has much to learn about undergraduate teaching" and looks forward to "developing an understanding of and sensitivity to factors that can both benefit and impede the learning process." He adds that he hopes "to further refine multiple techniques to ‘light a fire' in students, a motivation for the subject matter of my courses and a life-long love of learning." Aaron continually strives to improve himself as a teacher, and demonstrates the truth of a faculty comment that "He is a model for a graduate student both genuinely dedicated to students and the classroom and open-minded enough to learn from his experiences in order to fashion himself into a teacher of the very highest rank."