CU’s professor of the year traveled a rocky academic road

Steven Pollock

A University of Colorado faculty member who got one of the nation’s top teaching honors this week was nearly turned down when he came up for tenure a dozen years ago.

And a former dean initially declined Steven Pollock’s promotion to full professor of physics nine years later, citing concerns about the very research on teaching that contributed to him being named U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Pollock, who started teaching at CU in 1993, says the sometimes uphill battle makes winning the award that much sweeter.

“It’s very satisfying,” he told Boulder Weekly.

Only one other person in Colorado has earned the national honor: Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman, in 2004. Pollock, who is being honored in the category of doctoral and research universities, was chosen from a field of more than 350 nominees for the most outstanding undergraduate instructor in the country.

In 2001, former CU President Betsy Hoffman made the rare and controversial move of reversing a campus tenure decision, granting Pollock the job protections even though it had failed to gain the full two-thirds majority support among faculty in his department, according to CU’s former faculty/staff newspaper, Silver & Gold Record. While two other committees had recommended tenure for Pollock, former CU-Boulder Chancellor Richard Byyny denied it, prompting Pollock to appeal. The Board of Regents sided with Hoffman, granting him tenure, a move that raised some eyebrows among the faculty.

Pollock said at the time the reason he did not gain the necessary support from his colleagues in the physics department was because they felt his research and publishing activity wasn’t up to par. At the time, his research emphasis was in nuclear theory, but he was becoming increasingly interested in the study of how physics students learn and are best taught.

“I couldn’t turn to my colleagues and say, ‘Look, what I’m doing is education research,’ it was really turning to my colleagues and saying, ‘You know, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about teaching,’” he told BW. “And so I think that was the problem. … And so what this has allowed me to do is do the research that I guess I wanted to do in those days and didn’t know I could.”

There was at least one more obstacle to overcome, when Pollock came up for promotion to full professor in 2009, after his research had shifted to physics education. He says this time the department vote was “easy, strongly supportive. Ironically, the dean turned it back to the physics department, but that was a whole other story that I don’t want to get into. It ended up all being fine. Surprisingly, even though the physics department made it very clear they were comfortable with physics education research as a part of the physics department, the dean wasn’t sure.”

He explains that at the time, many of his published works appeared in peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

“There are many fields in which conference proceedings are low-prestige publications, and so we had to basically make the case to the dean that, well, in this case, they are refereed and they were considered to be meaningful,” Pollock says. “I do get some little satisfaction that, every time one of these things — it’s validation, right?”

He says the fact that Wieman was also a CU professor of physics is a testament to the quality of education in the department.

“I remember saying to the chair that there’s no way we’re going to win this, because they can’t give it twice to the same department at the same university,” Pollock recalls. “It’s really a strong, positive statement about CU, because I think it must be hard to win this prize if you don’t have lots of support. I sort of feel uncomfortable receiving an award like this when I feel like the work I do is part of a community.”

When asked what he plans to do with the $5,000 in prize money that accompanies the award, he notes that his basement saw some minor flooding during the September inundation.

“I’ve been joking that it’s going to pay for the flood damage to my house,” Pollock says.

His teaching methods and materials — which are increasingly being used around the country in physics education — involve breaking up the lecture format and getting students into discussion groups and working together on exercises that connect them to how the topic applies to real-life problems.

He credits several groups for the growing campus support for research into teaching and learning, including the Discipline-Based Education Research group, the Learning Assistance Program and Center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Learning. In addition, Pollock is a President’s Teaching Scholar, a multi-campus CU group dedicated to the scholarship of learning.

Editor’s note: Dodge originally reported on Pollock’s tenure case while working for the CU faculty/staff newspaper Silver & Gold Record.