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Distinguished Faculty Have Something in Common

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Faculty tapped for recognition this spring by the UL Lafayette Foundation have a few characteristics in common.

They’re at the top of their game. They’re well-rounded, excelling in teaching, research and community service. And, they make a difference in the lives of many of their students.

“ Just about every college graduate can recall a professor who made a lasting impression, who stood out from the rest. The educators that we honor this year are of that caliber,” said Julie Bolton Falgout, executive director of the Foundation.

Recipients of the 2004 Distinguished Professor Award are: Stephen J. Caldas, professor of educational foundations and leadership; Richard C. Cusimano, professor of history; and Joseph Neigel, professor of biology. Julia C. Frederick, an assistant professor of history, is the recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award.

They will be honored by the Foundation in late April.

Dr. Stephen J. Caldas

Whether he is in the clouds or in the classroom, Dr. Stephen Caldas is always teaching.

A professor of Educational Foundations and Leadership, Caldas is also a volunteer pilot with the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary unit of the U.S. Air Force.

The skill to pilot a plane or steer a student in the right direction are similar, Caldas said. He routinely has Civil Air Patrol cadets on board when he takes to the air.

“ We introduce them to this program and it’s exciting to see their reactions,” said Caldas. “You could have a kid with discipline problems who just ‘turns around’ in those flights. I love educating the youth on flying and the program.”

On the ground, Caldas is a noted expert on school desegregation in Louisiana and nationwide. His research indicates few desegregation plans have worked in the past 50 years. “They have often just exacerbated the problem,” Caldas said.

He reported these results in two books; one earned the 2003 Louisiana Library Science Literary Award. He’s also been selected five times by his peers to receive the Summer Research Award.

In a letter nominating Caldas for the UL Lafayette Foundation’s Distinguished Professor honor, the dean of the College of Education said Caldas has gained a reputation as an “excellent researcher.”

“ His research is regularly solicited by others from all over the world and the media, and is widely cited by other educational researchers,” Dr. Gerald Carlson said.

The professor shares his research with students, Carlson said, adding that Caldas’ classes are often filled to capacity.

“ He consistently receives very strong student evaluations of instruction and his energy and style of teaching is most effective. I am also impressed that Dr. Caldas brings his research into the classroom so students can benefit from his findings.”

Dr. Roslin Growe, department head for Educational Foundations and Leadership, agreed. “Steve demonstrates in all important facets of his teaching a competence and dedication that deserves recognition.”

Caldas earned a bachelor’s degree in history. The training enabled him to funnel past events into a current context. His study of desegregation reflects a love of the past, he said.

“ I started with a degree in history and then wondered what I was going to do with this degree. I knew I loved teaching friends and relatives about Louisiana’s colorful history, so I thought, ‘I can teach school.’ So I earned a degree in education and that’s how I started.”

His teaching mission is simple: be enthusiastic as possible and never, never have a boring class. He made a promise to himself early on to follow those rules.

“ I must have been dozing in a boring class at some point, when I resolved I wouldn’t have a boring class and subject my students to the same misery,” he said.

Dr. Richard C. Cusimano

Soon after Dr. Richard C. Cusimano enters a classroom, laughter usually erupts.

Trained in the oration techniques of the ancient Greeks and Romans, he shows off his wit and witticisms at the beginning of each class.

“ You have to start off with an attention grabbing statement, otherwise you are not going to be able to bring the students in. Humor is a very effective way to teach. My father used to say, ‘If you have people laughing, they are going to be on your side.’ ”

Cusimano has gained a reputation over his 30-year tenure at UL Lafayette as a thought-provoking and dynamic history professor, wrote History and Geography Department head Dr. Robert Carriker in a letter nominating him for the UL Lafayette Foundation’s Distinguished Professor Award.

“ All of his classes fill to capacity as students clamor to secure a seat in his courses,” Carriker wrote.

Cusimano’s translations of medieval Latin texts have earned him the appreciation of his peers, as well. “Researchers and historians of the period will benefit from his work and its lasting impact will be felt for generations as it adds to the building blocks of historical material now accessible for historians around the world,” Carriker said.

Cusimano joined the USL History Department in 1970 soon after earning his doctorate in medieval and Renaissance history. The challenge – then and now – was to get students interested in the past and its relation to their current lives.

“ Most young adults, in many ways, are not quite ready to really appreciate historical study. It is a challenge to bring them alive to the importance of the lessons of history. I speak about things that are of importance to them today, relating the past to today’s events. A teacher should never not know what is of interest to his current students.”

The Distinguished Professor honor comes as Cusimano closes a career at UL Lafayette that included service as head of the History and Geography Department and dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

“ I am now teaching the second generation of students. I have students come up to me and tell me I also taught their parents, aunts and uncles. Out of fear I may be teaching a third generation, I have decided to retire,” he said.

In retirement, the 64-year-old will continue his translations of medieval texts and travel. But he said he will miss the daily interactions with his students.

“ I ask them questions to find out what is of interest to them. It keeps me up to date. I find them delightful. Youth is contagious.”

Dr. Joseph Neigel

Dr. Joseph Neigel has some advice for students: “Figure out what you really like to do and don’t give it up.”

The biology professor speaks from experience.

As a young scientist, he was drawn to molecular biology, fascinated by what he learned in laboratories. But he also enjoyed classical biology, especially its outdoor fieldwork.

“ I decided to try to develop a research and career path that would bring those two areas together, to satisfy all the things I was interested in,” he recalled.

Neigel was in uncharted territory. But when he interviewed in 1987 for a teaching post at UL Lafayette (then known as USL) his plan to merge his interests was welcomed by Dr. Darryl Felder, head of the Biology Department.

“ The idea of bringing molecular biology into areas like ecology is now a very widely accepted, very widely practiced approach,” Neigel said, with a smile. “I guess I called it right.”

Much of his work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, which has a reputation for funding only the most innovative research proposals.

In a letter nominating him for the Distinguished Professor Award, Felder noted that Neigel has been named to serve on three groups in marine conservation ecology, “which are basically NSF think tanks assembled to synthesize knowledge, define research priorities and transfer scientific knowledge to policy makers and the public.

“ He has also been funded by NSF to establish on our campus a Population Genetics Database (community database) and was named to a recent NSF panel to evaluate proposals for a National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.

“ Recently, he was asked by NSF to take a leave of absence from the university to serve as program officer for this new panel, but he declined to avoid putting his UL Lafayette research program on hold. Such recognition does not come to a faculty member without exceptional credentials in research and Joe clearly is a leader in his research field.”

Neigel excels at teaching, as well. He stresses fundamentals, then challenges his students to apply them in innovative ways. Students are encouraged to spend time in the laboratory to augment what they read in textbooks. They can learn to perform DNA sequencing and molecular cloning, for instance.

Neigel co-founded the “Louisiana Alliance for Science,” a statewide group of scientists and educators who concentrate on improving science education. He also developed “Explorations in Genetics,” a program that introduces high school students to genetics.

The most critical time to get students interested in science is when they are young, Neigel said. He became interested in science at an early age, “because I had good teachers who, although I didn’t realize it at the time, were putting up with a lot from me, to encourage me.”

He now does the same for others.

Dr. Julia C. Frederick

In the recent movie “Mona Lisa Smile,” Julia Roberts plays an art professor who takes a position at Wellesley College, a private school for women, in the 1950s.

She quickly learns that her students can recite information about famous paintings, but they cannot analyze or compare them. So she begins to teach them to view art in new ways.

Dr. Julia C. Frederick, an assistant professor of history, takes a similar approach to teaching.

“ My job is to connect the facts and show students how history moves and what’s important,” she said in a recent interview in her Griffin Hall office. She is the recipient of the Foundation’s 2004 Excellence in Teaching Award.

Frederick puts historical information into a larger context for her students. “Many of these students exist in a world that is 19 years old or 20 years old . . . They need that greater view of the world because they need to understand where they fit into the story of mankind,” she said.

In one of her humanities courses, Frederick begins the semester by asking students to close their eyes and pretend they are waking up the next day. “You only know two things,” she tells them. “You know your first name. And you know that you have something important to do. What is your problem?”

Typical responses: “I don’t know who my family is.” “I do not know what’s right or wrong.” “I do not know who the enemy is.”

Frederick then explains to the class why she conducts this hypothetical exercise.

“ This is you without history,” she says. “This is why history is important.”

Dr. Robert Carriker, head of UL Lafayette’s History and Geography Department, said Frederick is popular with students.

“ Her classes always fill early and all of her students consistently evaluate her as a challenging, caring, devoted, passionate and thoughtful instructor,” he wrote in a letter nominating her for the Excellence in Teaching Award.

“ Students are truly drawn to her and after observing her (teach), I understand why: it is because she so honestly cares about their learning, their development and them as individuals.”

Dr. David Barry, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said Frederick’s “success is contingent on the success of her students. She mentors students as well as teaching them.”

Last year, Frederick helped the Lafayette Parish School System obtain an almost $1 million multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to offer professional development to 77 elementary, middle and high school teachers. She also received a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities grant for a Summer Teachers Institute.

Frederick is director of Latin American History at UL Lafayette. She has created and taught several new courses, including “Women in Latin American History” and “Latin American Belief Systems.”

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