by John Michael O'Leary
Dr. Ernest Hall, professor of management, says the greatest teaching compliment he received was from a graduate student in his strategy class. “It’s a three-hour class, and he said that nobody looks at their watch and nobody looks at the clock.”
Classroom engagement is a mark of Hall’s teaching style and part of why he is USI’s Distinguished Professor of 2019. But he admits his engaging manner didn’t always come with such seeming ease.
“As a youngster I was quiet, bashful,” Hall recalls. “In school I prayed that nobody would call on me. Even as an undergrad, I was petrified of making presentations.”
Hall entered college with plans to be an engineer but switched to business with the intention of going into banking. He says a stint in law school was the cure for his reticence, because “the professors tend to grill you, and it was not uncommon for students to cry in class.” His subsequent return to graduate business studies brought his first chance to stand in the professor’s shoes.
“I was working as a graduate assistant,” says Hall. “One day the professor told me he was going out of town and he wanted me to teach his classes. I reluctantly agreed, and found that I liked it. Getting students engaged was fun. I guess that’s when I caught the teaching bug.”
Student evaluations of Hall were complimentary, and the professor encouraged him to make teaching his profession. Later, working on his PhD, he got a more forceful nudge.
“It was a Thursday, and I was in the hallway,” recalls Hall. “The door to the department chair’s office flew open and I heard, ‘Hall, get in here.’ He handed me a book and said, ‘you’re teaching this class, starting Monday at 8 a.m.’ He mumbled something about staying a chapter ahead. That was 1985.”
Hall has been sharing his love of teaching with students at USI since 1992. You would never know it, but he wrestles with his craft.
“I grade myself after each class. I’m tough on myself,” says Hall. “For one thing, I didn’t like being lectured to when I was in school, where the teacher just spoke and everybody took notes. I think we educators miss a lot if we just teach facts. Higher learning and critical thinking require interaction and involvement in the learning process.”
“Students bring so much to the class with their different backgrounds. I try to develop a culture in the classroom where everyone feels comfortable in sharing their thoughts. It creates a richer experience for all of us, an atmosphere where everyone learns from everyone else.”
“I grew up outside New Orleans. People in the South spend a lot of time on the porch or around the kitchen table having conversations. There’s always something to learn from people if you are curious about them.”
-Dr. Ernie Hall, professor of management
What comes to mind when you hear the words science of economics? If thoughts of charts and graphs bring a tinge of ennui, you have an idea of what economics professors face in the classroom. Which is why Dr. Daria Sevastianova, associate professor of economics, takes teaching far beyond the fluorescent environs of desks and whiteboards.
“I teach because I want to change lives,” says Sevastianova, recipient of USI’s Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award. “Lectures limit the time for interaction in the classroom; to really get to know students, you have to work with them out-side the classroom.”
A native of Belarus, Sevastianova came to the United States in 1998; she joined USI’s faculty in 2007. Over the last dozen years, she has become known for encouraging students with nontypical learning milieus. She champions study-abroad trips and outings to the symposia of Women in Economics. She is faculty advisor to the Economics Club and director for the Center for Economic Education. She seems indefatigable. And she keeps her lights on.
“Teaching is a full-time job, and much more than what takes place in the class-room,” says Sevastianova. “My office hours are business hours, and if a student needs or wants to talk, I am here for them.”
Her ties to students is evident by her surroundings. On the bookcase in her office, stand framed photographs of Sevastianova with the eight student groups she has accompanied to Osnabrück, Germany. She smiles at the pictures, like a mother admiring her brood. When she speaks, you understand their achievements mean more than her own.
“I’ve taken more than 120 students abroad over the last eight years,” she says. “They are my family, my USI family. It’s a privilege to open their eyes to other cultures.”
Currently, Sevastianova is putting the pieces together for yet another nontraditional learning opportunity. A partnership with Osnabrück University will create six full-time student internships for USI students in Germany. She says her German colleagues are asking about a similar program here. “We’re exploring the potential for partnerships in business and government sectors.”
As a woman in what has been a traditionally male discipline, Sevastianova is particularly dedicated to helping women enter and ascend the field of economics. Under the auspices of Women in Economics, in September she coordinated a podcast on campus with members of the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. That same month, as director of USI’s Center for Economic Education, she organized a student panel to discuss opportunities for women in economics at a gathering of high school teachers.
“The students did such a good job in their presentations, several of the teachers approached them afterward and asked if they might be willing to come and speak to their classes.”
“I credit USI for supporting me in my work—enabling me to work closely with students. I don’t know that these opportunities would be available to me any-where else. I know I am in the right place to make a difference in my students’ lives.”
“I give the credit for my being a teacher to my mother, a philosophy professor. She always told me a professor is the best job you can have, and now I know she was right.”
-Dr. Daria Sevastianova, associate professor of economics
“I always knew that teaching was my calling,” says Dr. Srishti Srivastava, assistant professor of computer science. “My father was a professor of electrical engineering. I used to visit the classroom when he was teaching; even grading papers was interesting to me. He was my role model, and my whole education was geared toward becoming a professor in a STEM field.”
As recipient of the Sydney L. and Sadelle Berger Faculty Community Service Award, Srivastava shows a rare capacity to share her gift of teaching with young learners across the southern Indiana region. She is a local champion of Girls Who Code, a national organization working to close the gender gap in computing science. Two years in, the program—a collaborative effort with Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education’s SwiSTEM program—has seen 32 middle-school girls complete one of the nine-week courses. And it has spawned a kindred organization for middle-school boys, BroCode. Both programs are in growth mode, a testament to their popularity—and the growing public awareness of the discipline’s strong upside.
The U.S. Department of Labor expects occupations in computer and information technology to annually grow at more than twice the rate than all occupations from 2018 to 2028. Add to these endeavors Srivastava’s orchestration last March of a “Hackathon” hosted by USI’s student chapter of Association for Computing Machinery. It was the area’s first such event, bringing students and professionals together as collaborators on local business projects.
Srivastava sees her purpose as more than preparing students to earn a living. She is helping them develop the ability to think. That objective requires action—sometimes intervention—outside the classroom. She recalls a couple of examples.
“I often send emails to students about invitations to elite conferences or symposia,” says Srivastava. “Many times the messages seem to go unnoticed. However, I recall a student who showed up at my office seeking mentorship on a conference application; the process was rigorous and highly competitive. She saw it through and was selected to attend on a full-travel scholarship. She surprised me even more at the conference by how well she represented USI’s student body. She was among the more popular volunteers, an enthusiastic participant in several academic events. She became inspired to continue her studies and is now pursuing a master’s degree.”
On another occasion, some parents contacted her because their child had chosen to change majors and leave computer science. “They were concerned because the student had always been passionate about computing studies.”
Srivastava met with the student and listened as they talked about a few stressful roadblocks not uncommon at that impressionable age. “We talked through things, including how computer science provides the opportunity for creativity,” says Srivastava. “The student has resumed studies and told me our talk was really helpful, that they would not have been as productive and happy in another field.”
Thinking back on these students reminds her of a realization that came when she was a graduate student at Mississippi State and first started teaching at the university level.
“Teaching goes beyond the usual classroom setting. It involves mentoring students, listening to their stories, responding to late-night emails and much more. I am a teacher not only inside a classroom, but outside too. I do it because I want to make a difference in students’ lives.”
"I’ll never forget my high school physics teacher. He made physics exciting, using real-life events and experiences to teach the concepts in the text. He kept a quote from Einstein on the wall: Education is not the learning of facts but the training of minds to think.”
-Dr. Srishti Srivastava, assistant professor of computer science