Lisa Nielson is much more than an award-winning teacher at Case Western Reserve University, where she is frequently known as “Dr. N” among her students. She has also honed skills as a mentor, to the Nth degree.
The Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow is one of the winners of the 2016 J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring.
“Really, I think of mentoring as being an important part of teaching,” Nielson said. “It gives you the chance talk with students about what they’re learning, and I always learn something from them. They see connections in places that I don’t.”
Nielson previously has received the Richard A. Bloom, MD Award for Distinguished Teaching in the SAGES Program in 2012 and the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2014. As a career academic with a PhD, she knows how to present a lecture. From Nielson’s perspective, though, being a mentor is more rewarding, because it’s much more personal.
“Especially with first-years, you try to make sure they have all the tools they can possibly have to make good decisions,” she said.
Understanding human interaction happens to be the theme when she teaches an Anisfield-Wolf book class about literature. In SAGES lectures, she also delves into her research interests that focus on the relationship between music and society in the Medieval Islamic courts in the early Abbasid era about 1,250 years ago.
Nielson regularly presents at national and international conferences. Her professional affiliations include the American Musicological Society, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Middle East Medievalists. She studies the intersections of slavery, gender and music in the medieval Islamic women’s quarters.
Her other interests include popular music and contemporary literature. She has contributed reviews and opinion pieces to the Journal for the Society of American Music and the blog for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
A nominator for the mentoring honor expressed a level of trust with Nielson while in Dr. N’s “Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards” class. The student submitted a paper about sexual identity.
“Dr. Nielson created an environment where I was finally able to accept myself, grow as an individual and learn to see past barriers and intolerance,” the student wrote.
“Outside of class, she made herself available to talk whenever I needed,” the student added. “I finally had someone I could openly talk to about this and actually feel accepted. She showed her support in a way that I think goes above and beyond the role of a professor into the role of a mentor.”
Another way Nielson bonds with students is through her end-of-semester “Movie Night.” Students are encouraged to view a pop-culture film as a group and pipe up with sarcastic comments. Most recently, Dr. N. and her students put academic rigor aside by watching and laughing at the film Flash Gordon from about 35 years ago.
“It was so bad, it was great,” she said with a smile. “The students were just shouting at the movie the whole time.”
When Nielson receives a teaching or mentoring honor, she is more surprised than anyone.
“It’s astounding to me that I’ve gotten any awards,” she said. “I’m utterly astonished every time I’m even nominated for something. I love to teach, but I also really love to mentor. So this means a lot to me.”