Faculty Footnotes

Each year since 1993, the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching is given to a Caltech professor “who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation” in teaching. This year’s prize was awarded to Professor of English Kevin Gilmartin, who has taught at Caltech for the past 24 years. Gilmartin was nominated by students in several different disciplines, who praised his enthusiasm and accessibility, his artful handling of classroom discussion and debate, and his patient tutoring in the fine art of writing. The Feynman Prize committee described Gilmartin as “an example to the Institute of the possibilities for engagement, discovery, and growth through classroom teaching.” Here are just a few things that anonymous nominators had to say about Gilmartin:

“Between students and professors there lies an impersonal wall, but Professor Gilmartin bulldozes it down. If I pop into his office without any warning, he’ll talk to me for an hour on anything there is to talk about, from the bike traffic in Pasadena, to how much Jane Austen rocks, to how Aeneas is a jerk.”

“Not only did Professor Gilmartin try to involve all of his students in class discussions, but also he gave us unique opportunities to further our studies. Most memorably, he invited me and my classmates to have dinner with Sinead Morrissey, a contemporary poet whose work we were studying. By the end of that term, I was no longer plagued with self-doubt and decided to pursue a minor in English.”

“Professor Gilmartin is someone with whom I’d spend a day in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, sampling exotic teas and coffee and reading poetry. He’s my John Keating (from the Dead Poets’ Society). He’s the one who not only savors how language feels on tongues and develops heart-tugging or heart-emptying stories, but he is also generous to invite us all into that experience.”

The Write Stuff

Launched in 2007 by English professor Cindy Weinstein, the creative-writer- in-residence program most recently welcomed Irish poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon to campus, as a complement to English professor Kevin Gilmartin’s course on modern and contemporary Irish literature. The program, which has existed through support from the Provost’s Innovative Teaching Fund, now has ongoing support from the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences through the James Michelin Distinguished Visitor Program.

“Students know the challenges of understanding the universe, from the point of view of chemistry or physics. The writers who come to Caltech will show students how literature addresses these challenges as well,” says Weinstein. “The creative process is both different from and analogous to doing an experiment in a science lab,” she adds. “Students welcome the opportunity to meet someone like Paul who explains how one writes poetry.”

For Muldoon, who visited Gilmartin’s classes and met with students in humanities classes, the experience was equally rewarding. “For writers the idea that anyone might be interested in reading their work at all always comes as a bit of a surprise, and the idea that some of these students might actually have been prepared for the visit is quite heartening,” he says.

Weinstein hopes to have a few visitors each year—one per quarter— to teach or sit in on classes, do public readings, or come for a week and write. “My hope is that Caltech will become known as an excellent place for writers to come and be exposed to really smart students. The goal of this program is that Caltech becomes a destination for creative writers, especially writers whose work demonstrates a link between science and literature,” says Weinstein.

–Andrew Allan