Richard Drushel, senior instructor and executive officer in the Department of Biology, considers teaching an opportunity to repay staff and faculty who helped him as an undergraduate and graduate student at Case Western Reserve University.
“I’m a lifer at this university,” said Drushel, who arrived as a first-year student in 1980 and never left. “All that I am, I learned here.”
What he’s learned and put into practice earned Drushel a 2017 Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Drushel will be recognized along with other award winners during commencement ceremonies May 21.
When President Barbara R. Snyder visited his class last month to announce that he’d won, he was pleased, but “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” Drushel said. After being nominated each of the five previous years and a total of eight times, “I was the Susan Lucci of the Wittke Award,” he joked.
Like the former soap opera star who was nominated 19 times before finally winning a Daytime Emmy, Drushel has been heaped with praise.
“I’ve never had a professor so engaging and genuinely eager for his students to learn,” wrote a student who nominated Drushel for this year’s award.
The student also lauded Drushel for his willingness to meet one-on-one to help make up for a lab the student had to miss, and for meeting to explain the senior Capstone process rather than simply refer the student to his academic advisor.
After taking Drushel’s human anatomy class, the student sought out other courses he offered. “I wanted to take physiology and vertebrate lab simply because Dr. D would be teaching them,” the nominator wrote.
Drushel’s teaching philosophy is simple: “I want to teach a class I would have enjoyed taking myself and in which I felt I had a fair chance of getting a good grade,” he said.
And he wants his classes to be useful to each student’s future.
When the human anatomy class was changed from a lecture/lab course for 40 students to a lecture-only course for 120, he wanted to restore the hands-on learning. He reorganized the class to include lecture two days per week, used the third day for multimedia demonstrations of cadavers, and created a student resource room containing museum specimens and life-sized models.
When he learned he had three pre-veterinary students in his vertebrate biology class, he customized part of their coursework, providing them with extra means to study dogs.
To gauge his own teaching, Drushel asks former students who’ve become first- and second-year medical students to look back and critique his classes.
“If what they learned and the way they learned it doesn’t help at the next level, it’s only a short-term gain,” he said.
Drushel has tried to model his classes on the most effective methods he learned from his undergraduate and graduate teachers, including from two previous Wittke winners.
“Hopefully, I’m also paying it forward, propagating our good teaching,” he said.
The Wittke Award was established in 1971 in honor of Wittke, a former faculty member, dean and vice president of Western Reserve University. The award is presented annually to two Case Western Reserve faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching.