home June 2014 Excellence in Teaching

Excellence in Teaching

In the classroom, Associate Professor of History Hamilton Stapell is the “guide on the side,” encouraging students to be prepared, be engaged and take an active role in their education.

For his student-centered approach to teaching, Stapell has earned the Provost Award for Teaching Excellence, just a year after being named the College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Teacher of the Year.

Hamilton Stapell
Hamilton Stapell

Among other qualities, the Provost award recognizes the teacher’s use of innovative teaching methods and practices. Stapell continuously experiments with new instructional methods to maximize student engagement, and always puts his students at the center of the classroom experience. The majority of his courses are discussion-based. He provides presentation guidelines and encourages his students to be creative and take ownership of the material.

He believes in empowering students to wrestle with difficult subject matter in his courses on European Intellectual History, Modern Spain, Medieval and Modern Europe, and others, and does not shy away from assigning challenging texts by authors such as Michel Foucault and Immanuel Kant.

“I believe strongly in having high expectations for my students and teach believing they can rise to the occasion. And they can, they do,” said Stapell.

Stapell believes that for a classroom truly to be student centered, the instructor must make clear to students that the course will be demanding. Students are expected to complete a variety of assignments, such as long research papers, short reaction papers, argumentative essays, group projects and oral presentations. Students in his upper division courses also engage in short oral evaluations, or After Action Reports, at the end of each class session, providing feedback on the day’s discussion.

“It’s critical for students to understand my expectations and how this course is going to work. My point is to be upfront and honest. I try to make the path to success clear and give them the tools to succeed, but it’s ultimately up to them. I won’t do it for them,” said Stapell.

In demanding more from his students, Stapell also asks more of himself. He takes classroom leadership seriously, and believes that he must model the behavior he expects of his students. “The only way to lead is to lead by example. If I expect my students to come on time, be prepared and be engaged with the material, then it’s my responsibility to show them how to do that,” he said.

The Provost award for Teaching Excellence not only recognizes outstanding classroom instruction, but expects the successful candidate’s engagement in a larger dialogue about teaching and learning. In his first academic year at New Paltz (2008-2009), Stapell sat in on all of his History Department colleagues’ classes (11 in total), and frequently attends teaching workshops and clinics. “I’m always looking for feedback, always looking for ways to do it better,” he said.

Stapell also engaged his colleagues in dialogue during an invited presentation that followed his recognition as the Liberal Arts and Sciences Teacher of the Year for 2012-13. At this April 2014 Teaching and Learning Center event, Stapell offered his philosophy of “the guide on the side,” shared handouts with colleagues, and answered numerous questions from the audience.

Stapell routinely integrates his scholarship into his teaching practice. He created two senior seminars: Madrid, Past and Present, which built upon the work of his first book, Remaking Madrid: Culture, Politics, and Identity after Franco; and Degeneration, Health and Modernity, which explored a new research interest, European urbanization and industrialization and its connection to the Physical Culture Movement’s focus on health and fitness.

This summer, Stapell will teach a new online summer course on Evolution and Human Health, which he designed in consultation with the interdisciplinary Evolutionary Studies Board. The course allows Stapell to build upon current research on the Ancestral Health Movement and further his personal interest in health and evolution. Stapell taught the Evolutionary Studies Program’s capstone course this spring.

Translating his student-centered classroom approach to an online platform has proven challenging, but Stapell welcomes the opportunity to teach in a new way. He has reached out to online-savvy colleagues for help and guidance. “Online courses are here to stay and I want to experience it for myself,” he said.

In describing his teaching philosophy, Stapell emphasizes his desire to help students become “life-long learners,” another behavior he models at New Paltz.

“Teaching is really hard to do well, and you can always do it better. That possibility for improvement gets me up in the morning,” he said.

– Despina Williams