Shakespeare scholar named holder of first UCLA chair for undergraduate teaching
Professor of English Robert Watson
has had a lifelong interest in subjects relating to history, from Shakespeare to environmentalism in Renaissance times to the politically charged climate of America in the 1960s — and he is constantly imparting this knowledge, with great enthusiasm, to his students.
So it’s no surprise that Watson recently made history himself: as holder of the first chair to celebrate undergraduate teaching in the College of Letters and Science.
Watson’s love of teaching has been recognized with the Waldo W. Neikirk Term Chair for Innovative Undergraduate Education, established in the Division of Undergraduate Education. The Neikirk chair honors and supports a faculty member in classics, comparative literature, English, European languages, history or philosophy who has a record of innovative and stellar teaching in the Freshman Cluster Program
and/or Honors Collegium
“Teaching undergraduates has always been the calling closest to my heart, so this is an especially welcome honor,” said Watson. “It provokes me into thinking freshly about what I can contribute in the classroom, and allows me to support some of the best programs we have to offer.”
“Endowing the division’s two signature academic programs is my highest funding priority,” said Judith Smith, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. “I was delighted when the Neikirk Term Chair was established and thrilled that Rob Watson was selected, not only because he is a distinguished scholar and teacher, but also because of his strong support of Freshman Clusters and the Collegium.”
Since he joined the UCLA faculty in 1986, Watson has been actively involved in undergraduate education. He has chaired, since their inception, the Fiat Lux Freshman Seminars
, which bring together small groups of students with faculty to explore a wide range of nontraditional subjects in nearly 200 courses annually. Until this year, he also served as chair of the Undergraduate Student-Initiated Education program
, which helps students to create and facilitate their own seminar courses.
For several years, Watson served as faculty chair of the Honors Programs
and as chair of UCLA’s Writing II
program, which doubles and diversifies the undergraduate writing requirement.
In 1995, Watson drew upon his own memories as a teenager growing up in New York during the politically charged Vietnam War era to create an honors colloquium called “The U.S. in the 1960s.” By 2000, the class had evolved into a yearlong course for the Freshman Clusters Program that he co-taught with Janice Reiff, associate professor of history; Joel Aberbach, professor of political science and public policy; and Jeff Decker, an adjunct associate professor in American literature.
Watson’s public service contributions include serving for many years as head scholar of a summer program for high school teachers at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., part of the “Teaching Shakespeare Institute” series funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2007, he developed a similar program in Los Angeles, where he continues to teach occasional classes in local elementary and high schools as a volunteer.
His pedagogical success is one reason why Watson continues to garner accolades, including the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award
in 2001 and the prestigious Gold Shield Faculty Prize in 2006. The prize — presented by Gold Shield Alumnae of UCLA
— is given annually to a faculty member for outstanding contributions in research, teaching and public service, and comes with an unrestricted $30,000 cash award.
Watson said he would initiate his three-year term as the Neikirk Chair with new Honors Collegium and Fiat Lux courses. In 2013, he hopes to launch a new Freshman Cluster: an interdisciplinary course on the Renaissance period.
The chair’s benefactor, Waldo Neikirk, was a Harvard-educated financier keenly interested in supporting undergraduate education. In 1997, Neikirk established an undergraduate scholarship fund that was converted upon his death in 2010 into the endowed term chair, in accordance with the terms of his estate. “Neikirk believed strongly in the power of excellent teaching,” said Smith, “and he wanted to establish a new type of chair to recognize outstanding teachers in the liberal arts.”
Like Neikirk, Watson is a forceful advocate for humanistic undergraduate education, pointing out that “whatever develops a creative but disciplined mind, a heart open to other people, and an ability to communicate is going to produce a better life. With technologies and economies changing as fast as they do, and with cultures in such critical collisions, those may be the only skills we can be confident are going to be valuable.”
Watson observed wryly that it is also important for undergraduates to stay awake — and not just in class. “By this, I mean be ready to ask hard questions and to listen carefully to anyone telling you what’s wrong with your answers,” he advised. “Students need to learn how to detect the difference between valid and invalid arguments, at increasing levels of subtlety.”
For Watson, teaching UCLA undergraduates is truly rewarding. “I love those little moments in the classroom when I see students happily startled by something amazing their minds can do, in fields of knowledge that previously had seemed distant and scary.”