Alumnus is Oregon Professor of the Year Willamette University economics professor Jerry D. Gray ’81 is a little embarrassed about all the attention he is getting from his 2005 Oregon Professor of the Year award. But he admits that “to be recognized for teaching—something that I care about doing well—is really a wonderful gift.”
Known for his enthusiasm, dedication, and humor in making economics relevant to everyday life and easy for students to understand, Gray is the eighth professor from the Salem, Ore., liberal arts school to win the honor since 1990. The award is bestowed by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on the basis of nominees’ dedication to teaching, commitment to students, and innovative instructional methods. It is the only national initiative to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring. A maximum of one professor per state receives the award annually.
Over the years, Gray says, he learned his craft from many different gifted professors he had as a student. As a teacher himself for the past 16 years, he’s honed his style by building on those best practices, while remaining true to himself. “I believe there’s no one single secret for teaching, but certain things seem critical to me. One of them is, you have to allow students to see who you are and how excited you get about the material,” he says. “I also believe that students can sense your level of concern for their learning. That part comes easily for me. I care a lot about it.”
Gray says he sensed that level of caring and enthusiasm for the material in many of his undergraduate economics courses at Santa Clara. Gray took his first economics course just because his friend was majoring in it. But Professor Mario Belotti’s engaging teaching style and command of the material hooked Gray immediately. “Before you knew it, I was an economics major,” he says.
Other Santa Clara professors influenced him, as well. He loved arguing with Professor David Henderson. “He loved engaging in that exchange of ideas, and it didn’t matter if students disagreed with him. I really respected that about him,” Gray remembers.
Through the skill and guidance of Professor Philip Mirowski, Gray gained his first experience in collaborative learning. Mirowski “taught the first real seminar course I took at SCU in economics. I loved that course!” he says. “It gave me a sense of what teaching and learning could be like.”
Gray also fondly recalls learning from interesting discussions with friends and classmates at SCU. That open exchange of ideas “was something about Santa Clara that I enjoyed and have tried to remember in my own teaching,” he says. “If I can get students to talk about the material when they’re outside of class, when they’re in their dorms at night, then I’ve probably succeeded as a teacher.”
—Anne Federwisch is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.