George Bridges

Distinguished Teaching Award

Back in the days when George Bridges was an undergraduate at the UW, he recalls walking into a large classroom and watched the professor "capture defeat from the jaws of victory."

"He had great material to work with but couldn't lecture. I remember thinking that if I became a teacher I'd want to do a better job than that guy," says Bridges, who is a 1996 Distinguished Teaching Award winner.

Whenever the topic of teaching large classes at the UW comes up, Bridges' name inevitably is mentioned, usually in connection with Sociology 271, a legendary class that attracts more than 500 students.

But Bridges' impact on quality teaching extends far beyond own classroom. He is the director of the two-year-old Faculty Fellows Program for new faculty. He's also one of the founders of Large Lecture Instructors, an informal group who teach the biggest classes on campus, and he directs his department's PEW Foundation Program for Preparing Future Faculty.

Bridges conceived of the Faculty Fellows Program, a kind of teaching institute, more than two years ago and sold the idea to former Provost Wayne Clough. One of the few of its kind in the country, it introduces new UW faculty to teaching with an intensive, one-week seminar and follow-up sessions through their first year.

"Junior faculty spend so much of their time on teaching-- learning things that older, more experienced people have already learned. This is just a way of transferring that knowledge," says Bridges.

The large lecture group also grew out of Bridge's energy. The group was founded four years ago by Stan Chernicoff, senior lecturer in geological sciences; Barbara Clinton, a former faculty member in speech communications; and Bridges.

"We created it selfishly out of our desire to find out what others who teach large classes are doing in the classroom and to create a dialog among ourselves," explains Bridges. "We brought in accomplished lecturers from off campus, people with great ideas to share with us, and I've found this is really helpful to my work."

Bridges works hard at teaching. He always has, but he had to overcome an innate shyness to feel comfortable lecturing to 500 students. His first teaching job was an introductory sociology course for eight students at Case Western University in Cleveland in the early 1980s.

"At the end of the semester, one of the students came up and told me that my face turned beet red the entire semester, every time lectured. I was very unskilled at public speaking," recalls Bridges. "When I came to the UW, Sociology 271 was my assigned class. I worked very hard to have lectures prepared. For several years, I wrote out every lecture word for word and then I'd internalize them, almost memorize them, so I would be more of myself in class.

"I've learned to teach a big class as if it was a small one. I try to make abstract ideas personal, as a way of bringing students into the dialog. I'm a story teller. I tell my story and then ask students to tell theirs."

Over the years, Bridges skills as a teacher have drawn accolades from undergraduate and graduate students, colleagues and even members of the University's Board of Regents. "I'm trying to affect and improve the teaching on this campus and, at the same time, offer my students the idea that learning can be absolute fun. Something is wrong if it isn't fun," he says.--Joel Schwarz, UW Office of News and Information

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