Tom Stallings bestowed with superior teaching award

Professor Tom Stallings with 2023 Award

Professor Tom Stallings is one of nine faculty who received the 2023 George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, which honors top Rice instructors by votes from alumni who graduated within the past two, three, and five years.

On this occasion, Rice News asked the recipients what key differences they’ve noticed in terms of what it takes to be a successful teacher in 2023 compared to when they first began teaching college students. Below is Professor Tom Stallings response.

Tom Stallings

Professor Tom Stallings with 2023 George R. Brown Award

Honestly there are not too many things I am doing differently in front of the classroom other than I am less serious in the classroom than when I first started. I still call on people, do demonstrations, use lots of examples from the sport industry, start with asking the class questions instead of just lecturing, and change things up when I see students looking at the clock or starting to zone out.

My first year at Rice, I had come directly from the industry and was pretty intense. I lectured my first class, gave a mini-exam the second class and kept the seven students with the lowest scores after the third class and told them that their performance was unacceptable and they might want to either pick it up or drop the class. Word got around quick and the exam averages went up, but I may have been a little harsh. They did learn the material, but I was not going to get much consideration for a Brown Award.

I also found that sometimes I would make a wisecrack or joke about something we were discussing or something I was teaching and some of the one-liners got some good laughs. I remembered some of those for the next semester got the same laughs and over the years got a pretty decent routine going as my recycled but growing and tried-and-tested funny material continued to get laughs. I still expect high standards, the students learn, but I think I made class a bit more fun and kept the students engaged in a different way, so I think I am more likely to be described as irreverent and engaging than intense. Whatever the methods used, I like to think the students always felt I really wanted them to learn and that I cared about their life post-Rice and that I wanted to help get them where they were meant to be however I could.

If I had to pick out the biggest difference between teaching today and when I first started it might be that the age gap has increased between me and my captive audience in class as my students are getting born later and later into the late 20th and early 21st century. My own experiences in the sport industry occurred in many cases before the students were born, so any story I share might as well have been during Vietnam or the Civil War. The students don't know the names of athletes, seasons, iconic moments, or if they do know of it, it was a long, long time ago, like when their parents were young. I have to update stories that involve current athletes or teams to keep them engaged so I don't come across too much like the old fossil lecturing from the front of the room.

The one constant is the students are smart, love to learn, and the effort you put into working for the students is well worth the time. I think all of us feel lucky to be teaching here.

Professor Stallings with alumni and staff