Mensing's teaching mastery inspires students, colleagues

5/22/2007 7:00:00 AM

Gary Hausladen can still remember one of the first conversations he ever had about Scott Mensing.

It was shortly after Mensing had been hired in the Department of Geography in 1993. And Hausladen—one of the University's most decorated professors and a past recipient of the institution's highest teaching honor, the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award—knew a sure thing when he saw one.

"We knew, when Scott first came in, that he was going to be the best teacher of the bunch," says Hausladen, who also counts among his geography colleagues fellow Tibbitts Award winners Paul Starrs as well as the late Chris Exline. "We just knew it. We knew here was a superior teacher, someone who definitely performed high above the crowd."

Indeed, it has been a remarkable past three years for Mensing. He has achieved a teaching "triple crown" of the highest order. In 2005, he was named winner of the LeMay Award for Excellence in Teaching, signifying the top instructor in the College of Science. In 2006, he earned the Tibbitts Award. And, this year, he is recipient of the Regents Teaching Award—an annual award presented by the Nevada System of Higher Education to the professor throughout the entire system with the most distinguished teaching record.

What's even more noteworthy, Hausladen says, is that Mensing has not only earned these awards in consecutive years, he has earned them the first time he has been nominated for each.

"He's gotten these awards three years in a row, the first time out on each one," Hausladen says. "I think that's absolutely unbelievable."

What makes Mensing so special? During a recent visit in his office in the Mackay Science Building, Mensing says he is hesitant to call himself "special."

"I try to not think that way," he says. Then Mensing leans forward in his seat, his long frame seeming to compress the way he perhaps hopes all the attention over his teaching success would compress—so that he can simply return to business as usual. He smiles: "Now are we finished? I thought the interview was over."

It takes some time, some deep discussion about teaching methods, the motivation of both teachers and students, to truly understand why Mensing is award-worthy. Then it becomes clear.

Take, for example, how he views his role in the classroom. In Hausladen's words, teaching is often about gaining—in a somewhat democratic and collaborative fashion—control of the classroom.

"Scott has great presence," Hausladen says. "He's a tall gentleman, with a wonderful voice, and a great personality. But to be a good teacher, you have to have more than presence. You have to come in, and you have to have the ability to let the class know, 'This is my classroom and this is how we're going to learn—this is going to be positive, this is going to be fun, and in spite of yourselves you're going to learn something.'"

"Now hold on tight, because here we go."

Mensing accomplishes this in a number of ways. He sends an e-mail after the interview is over. He's forgotten something, something important after a discussion that had seemingly unearthed nugget upon nugget of great teaching techniques.

The e-mail is instructive, because it illustrates that for Mensing, the conversation, the thought given to teaching, is constant. Like writing, or art, it is something that can always be refined, perfected, rounded into something more digestible for the supposedly hyperactive, electronically engorged minds of today's college students.

Mensing writes:

"One of the practices that I adopted for my 100 level class (again, not my idea, borrowed from a faculty member on another campus) was to hold office hours in the library rather than my office since I noticed students rarely came to the office. I also give them 5 points for one visit through the semester because from what I have heard, students do better when they have one on one contact with a professor. But also, since the library is their territory and not mine, it seems a little more inviting. It has proved very successful and this semester ... so far I have had 70 student visits. Some students come regularly, some only once for their points, others as small study groups. We often have 2-5 students together and they become small study sessions. But here is the kicker. I have a few students who are regulars, and about a week ago, I was trying to get some administrative business done before heading off to the AAG conference and figured I would just have to miss my office hours. But the students called me from the library asking where I was! So I hustled over there to answer questions. I could not believe it. I have never been called to my office hours by the students. It just showed me how dedicated they are if given the opportunity.

"You can dump this, but I thought you might like to hear it. It reflects well on our students."

Hausladen can vouch for his colleague's strong sense of obligation for students.

"This is a professor, early on in the semester, that will go around the classroom and take pictures of every single student," he says. "He does this so he can study their faces, and their names, so that he can put names to faces after only a first few classes. It's very important to Scott that his students aren't just another faceless name to him. He wants to know all their names. And you have to remember his classes aren't small. There are a hundred some-odd students in some of his classes."

Depending on the class, Mensing says he will use different methods. Although he is chairman of his department, he teaches at practically every level. For 100-level introductory courses, he admits, "There is at least some element of theater. They're not there because they want to learn about what you want to teach them. They're there because somebody in the administration said you have to check off this box and one of these 100 level courses will help you do this. So you have to draw them in."

To draw students in, Mensing will do things like chomp on an orange as he has students study how shape, distance and area are portrayed on globes and maps. As the students observe different projections of maps, Mensing, about halfway through the orange, will take it and slam it on a desktop.

"Juice goes everywhere," Mensing says, laughing. "And the sleeping wake up, and people are surprised. And then I hold the orange up. And of course, the orange was round when to begin with, and now it's distorted, it's all torn up. The point is, maps look this because you can't go from a round surface to a flat surface without distortion. From that point on, they can't ever see a map again without thinking and seeing distortion."

In another "demonstration," Mensing will illustrate the various types of rocks—igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic—and how they reach their various states with the use of bread and peanut butter and jelly.

"Rocks are evidence, and it's important, if we're going to reconstruct how the world used to look, that we are able to read the earth's story from the rocks," says Mensing, whose research agenda focuses on climate reconstruction through the field of biogeography, or the geography of the distribution of plants and animals.

To better tell this story, Mensing constructs a multi-layered PB&J as a way to illustrate distribution of sediments in water (ever wonder why there are so many rocks on the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake, for example, and how the earth becomes much finer, less coarse, further away from shore? Eat a PB&J with Mensing and you'll find out the reason why).

"With each layer, whether it's peanut butter or jelly, we're building something, the different sediment layers and the processes that rocks go through from sedimentary to metamorphic," he says. "And then, when I reach the metamorphic part of the discussion, as I'm talking about heat and pressure and what this does to the rocks, I just sit down. Right on the sandwich."

Like the actor who struggles with his lines in practice, but inspired, like Olivier, who nails every word in front of an audience, Mensing admits that he's been awfully lucky during this exercise.

"I'm always a little nervous that I'm just going to tater myself on this when I sit on the sandwich," he says, stroking his brow for effect. "So far, I've come out clean every time and haven't ended up with peanut butter and jelly all over my pants.

"But the great thing is, even though the students are cracking up, they can see what happens when all the different layers are merged together. It's the ultimate metamorphic demonstration."

Adds Hausladen: "There's always interesting garbage after one of Scott's classes. He really does make it a hands-on, this-is-how-we-do-it-in-the-field type of experience."

Mensing admits that he's a bit less theatrical in front of his 400/600 level classes, or for his field methods course, where students learn to solve science-based problems gathering data in the field. The course includes a four-day field trip to the White Mountains, Mono Lake, the Owens Valley and Yosemite Valley.

Like many geographers, Mensing loves the outdoors. But he says the field methods course, in addition to "allowing us to walk around a bit, and to do some work, and to visit," also gives him an even more meaningful opportunity to teach. "The whole process of that course, working very intensely with the students with their writing, the thinking skills of 12 to 16 students, really is my favorite," he says.

What is interesting about Mensing's career trajectory on campus is that he does not come from the standard academic upbringing, where a student earns an undergraduate degree, goes directly to graduate school, earns a master's and Ph.D. and then is off and running with a professorship. Mensing graduated with a degree in landscape architecture from California-Berkeley, but knew even before he earned his degree that he wanted to follow a different career path. He worked a variety of jobs in environmentally related fields for nine years before a job with a non-profit conservation works program for young people 19 to 26 really took hold.

"These were kids that were out of the house, they were on their own, they were trying to be independent, and they had visions of where they wanted to be," he says. "I really, really liked working that particular age group. So where do you most often find that particular age group? On a college campus."

Mensing will never tell you that what he does is hard work. The father of three, married to another of the campus' more talented teachers, Donica Mensing, an assistant professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism, knows that he loves what he's doing.

Yet there are demands. Hausladen says he finds it "truly amazing" that Mensing can balance his curricular and administrative duties as department chairman, as well as a growing research agenda, along with maintaining a heavy teaching load.

Mensing admits that if there is any pressure on what he does, it is more self-imposed than anything else. And perhaps this is why he is so good. He is constantly wrestling with not only how to solve problems, but "how can I teach this problem in a way that others can learn from this? How can I give it back in such a way that it'll really make sense for them, that it'll click for them?"

"I've taught Geography 103 maybe 13 or 14 times now, and I have all the lectures already prepared," Mensing says. "So why is it the night before, do I still spend two hours, generally, preparing for Geography 103?"

His colleagues know why.

"Once you see Scott teach," Hausladen says, "you'll know why. Then you realize how good he really is."

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