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As Teacher, Mentor, Neubeck
Encourages Active Participation
March 13, 2000

"Forty years from now, if I remember anyone at UConn, I'll remember him," says Michael Ponzillo '99, of his former professor, Ken Neubeck.

Ponzillo is not alone. Neubeck is well known as an outstanding teacher and advisor among undergraduates, graduates and faculty colleagues. And this year, the associate professor of sociology's achievements and reputation won him an award for excellence in teaching and mentorship from the AAUP.

Spotlight on Teaching

Although Neubeck says "I don't ever win anything," it is clear from the testimony of his colleagues and students that he has been winning their respect and admiration for many years.

Consistently High Ratings
Wayne Villemez, professor and head of the sociology department, who nominated him for the award, says he is amazed at Neubeck's high teacher ratings. "His average overall evaluation score is above 9.1. Most faculty never in their careers teach a single class in which they receive such a rating, while he does it consistently, in every class, year after year.

"No matter what the level of class," says Villemez, "Ken Neubeck's student evaluations, like some universal constant, will be somewhere between 9.0 and 9.4."

Neubeck, a political sociologist who specializes in poverty and racism, has been on the faculty of the sociology department for 29 years.

His teaching philosophy is deceptively simple. "I like to have personal contact with students and learn what they think, what they're interested in," he says. "I want them to participate in their own education."

He regularly volunteers to teach W courses at the 100 and 200 levels, despite the frequent papers that need to be read and evaluated. The enrollment is limited to 30, but he often subdivides his classes into small groups to debate ideas such as whether or not there should be a guaranteed minimum income for every U.S. citizen.

Maintaining a position of neutrality himself, Neubeck provides the students with background material on various aspects of any topic and they may be assigned to defend an idea that they don't personally agree with. Feelings run high. Neubeck is delighted that even at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, class attendance is near 100 percent and that "often I'll hear students arguing all the way out the door."

Ponzillo, who graduated in 1999, recalls a particularly effective class exercise. After dividing the class into groups, Neubeck handed out manila envelopes with different amounts of construction paper. Each group had to use the construction paper to create simple objects. Most envelopes also contained items such as pencils, paper clips, rulers or glue, but some envelopes were nearly empty.

The idea, Neubeck explains, is to simulate inequality of resources among groups. The students with nearly empty envelopes represent society's have-nots, who are forced to bargain - using their construction paper resources - with groups that have more items, the middle class and the rich.

Neubeck says the competition gets fierce and the behavior bizarre. Students in all groups begin plotting to cheat or steal to get what they need, and end up making very few paper objects. "The exercise shows them that without cooperation and sharing between groups, society is unproductive," he says.

Ponzillo says the exercise made such a strong impression that he is now using it himself at the high school where he teaches in Waterbury.

Being Available to Students
Although excellence in teaching and mentoring are not necessarily linked, Neubeck gets high marks in the latter category, too. Villemez notes that "Ken has averaged over 30 undergraduate advisees - very high for our department - every year for as far back as records go. Every year our head advisor has to turn down many student requests for him as an advisor.

"He is also chosen as a committee member by our graduate students with much greater frequency than anyone else in the department," says Villemez. "The number of graduate committees he is on currently is 18. The average person in the department is on fewer than five."

Sandy Bender Fromson, a current Ph.D student, says Neubeck helps students clarify their own thinking. He does this, she says, "not by telling but by asking questions." She cites a time when "I was trying to map relationships between organizations and organizational style and I hit a wall. It just wasn't clear where I was going. Ken and I sat down with the graphs and charts and he listened to me talk, asked some questions, and gradually I began to see a change in the orientation of the problem. It was like a lightbulb going on."

She adds that Neubeck has a way of "getting a sense of who students are. There are always some in every class who are timid and he has a very nice way of drawing people out and building their confidence."

She says Neubeck is very accessible to students. Davita Glasberg, a professor of sociology with an office across the hall, agrees: "his door is always open and, more often than not, he is engaged with a student."

In addition to teaching and advising on campus, Neubeck encourages students to do internships and participate in off-campus experiences. He works with the Urban Semester program and the Center for Community Outreach to identify opportunities for students, and supervises a course, Sociology 296, in which students spend time working with social welfare agencies.

"It's important that they relate what they learn in class to practical experience, and that they learn to view the world sociologically" he says. "They come back to campus completely rejuvenated."

Neubeck is also a prolific writer in his field. His textbook, Social Problems: A Critical Approach, is now in its fourth edition. His co-author on this edition is his wife, Mary Alice Neubeck, director of undergraduate studies in the School of Family Studies. Neubeck is also completing a monograph on racism and welfare policy with colleague Noel Cazenave and, with Glasberg as co-author, is preparing the second edition of another textbook, Sociology: A Critical Approach.

Diane Cox