Robert Garvey wins “U.S. Professor of the Year” award
from the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for the Advancement
and Support of Education.
By Paul E. Kandarian
Bob Garvey is nearly as electric as the stuff being produced
by the more than 20 tiny generators whirring away in his
"OK, so why is it harder to crank the handle when the bulb
is on?" he shouts to the students who are pumping the handles
of the little generators.
Garvey has the overhead lights off, the buzz of the generators
and the ebb-and-flow glow of small light bulbs filling the
room. The students stop cranking, Garvey flips the lights
One student ventures that it's a matter of resistance.
"Well, there's two meanings to 'resistance,'" he says. "Electrical
resistance and the resistance of something like the Civil
Students smile as Garvey adds that this is "not an acceptable
answer, but a good try. I like that."
This is "Physics of Everyday Life," general physics with
an emphasis on how things work. And today's topic is electricity,
that which powers CD players, dorm-room refrigerators, hair
dryers, computers, pizza ovens, ATM machines, all the electronically
important stuff in college life. With Janine Shertzer, associate
professor and chair of the physics department, Garvey co-authored
a Sherman-Fairchild grant that developed this course.
It is Garvey's lifelong work of making physics a less daunting
affair for students-including his part in getting Holy Cross' First-Year
Program up and running-that earned him a U.S. Professor of
the Year award, given by the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement
and Support of Education (CASE).
That lofty accolade-Garvey was one of only four teachers
so honored in the nation-doesn't mean much to the students
trying now to figure out why it's harder to crank the electric
motor when the bulb is on. And it's Garvey's job to make
the lights go on in the students' heads, so they can figure
it out for themselves.
He's loud, forceful, dynamic as he labors good-naturedly
to drag the answer out of someone, anyone. When finally it
clicks, when someone gets it-something to do with the work
it takes to produce energy-he's so elated by the excitement
of knowledge discovered that he slams his chalk down on the
lab table with a wide grin.
Electricity is life and is all around, in clocks, cars,
fans-and in the motors of student minds as they search for
knowledge. And in this classroom, the battery in the motor
"Teaching physics is sometimes propaganda," Garvey says
with a shrug as he sits in his tiny office before teaching
that day. "Too often, teachers try to dazzle people with
what you're dazzled by. It shouldn't be like that."
It isn't for Garvey, a guy who insists on making what he
teaches relevant. And he clicks with students.
"He lays the foundation of physics, makes you see how it
applies to life," says Derek DiRocco, a third-year biology
major from Billerica, Mass. "I like it, it's a great course."
Even those who have to be here don't mind: "I have to take
this course, but I really enjoy it," says Tony Gennaoui,
a second-year premed student from Somerset, Mass. "With all
the numbers and equations in physics, it's easy to phase
that stuff out of your mind. But he keeps you interested."
What it's like to be a student
Associate Professor Robert H. Garvey doesn't look the part
of college professor. A small-framed man of 56 with craggy
facial features, droopy graying moustache and longish hair,
he looks like he'd be more at home on the back of a Harley
than in front of a classroom talking about time-dependent
perturbation theory and the emission/absorption of radiation.
But a professor he is, and winning the prestigious U.S.
Teacher of the Year award, affirms that he's doing the job
the right way. And while he's honored by the award, he's
also quick to share credit with Shertzer, his co-author for
the grant for the "Physics in Everyday Life" course that
was part of his being named an award winner.
In fact, he's quick to point out that all he's done, he
hasn't done alone.
"I've been involved in a large number of things, but none
I alone initiated," he says, deflecting credit from himself. "They
were all collaborative efforts, it's not like I came up with
something that changed the lives of 30 people."
One reason he got the award, many feel, was his part in
getting the College's First-Year Program going; Garvey was
the first director of the program which has reached its 10th
anniversary. The interdisciplinary living and learning program
was headed up by a group of "extraordinary adventurous
people," says Helen Whall, a Holy Cross English professor
who worked with Garvey in its first year (Whall was the program's
"That first year, his mode of getting it off the ground,
his mode of leadership, was to draw the best out of everyone,
which he still does," Whall says. "It's his humility that
works, he directs quietly, subtly. He's like that as a teacher,
Whall is struck by Garvey's humble nature and says he doesn't
know sometimes how much he's admired. She recalls one sartorially
significant event during the first First-Year Program, where
she noticed the first several rows of young men waiting for
a speaking program to begin.
"They all wore beige chinos and white buttoned-down Oxford
shirts," Whall says with a laugh. "They were all dressed
like Bob Garvey.
"I can't tell you how important Bob was to the First-Year
Program," she says. "He made a huge contribution toward creating
it, but he let it become itself rather than imprint it with
his personality. This program would not be where it is now
without Bob Garvey."
Teaching in the world
One of his biggest contributions to undergraduate teaching,
Garvey feels, was teaching for six years in the 1980s with
philosophy Professor Clyde Pax, now retired.
"The kids had to do both philosophy and physics, and Clyde
and I had to sit in on each other's course," Garvey says. "Clyde
didn't know much science, and I didn't know much philosophy.
I found it to be an eye-opening experience."
And an experience more teachers should try, he says.
"It helped me remember what it was like to be a student," he
says. "As a result, I'm more patient with my own students
who don't get it right away. You also get to see somebody
else teaching, a very unusual experience in academia. If
you sit in on a class at all, it's to evaluate the teacher,
not experience the course."
And it made him rethink his teaching methods, he says.
"You sit in there and think, 'Would I teach this way?' and 'Gee,
I didn't think of that,'" Garvey says. "It makes you reflect
on your own teaching. It opened me up to seeing the way I
learned physics was not for everyone.
"People who love physics, love physics, but it turns others
off," Garvey says, adding that learning physics "shouldn't
be like root canal" for students, it should be enjoyable.
"But physics teachers are usually unconsciously trying
to train students to go to grad school," he says. "But the
majority of students won't."
According to Manfred Euler, president of the International
Research Group on Physics Teaching, as he writes on that
group's Web site, "We have to convey the 'big ideas' of our
discipline and make them accessible and sensible to our students
in a meaningful and authentic way, which meets their expectations
Garvey couldn't agree more, and says that sitting in on
other teachers' courses is an immeasurable help.
"You can sit in on almost any course outside your discipline
and learn about teaching," he says.
In sitting in on Pax's course, Garvey says, he saw the
teacher make philosophy relevant to students' lives, and
thought, "Why not do the same with physics?"
Garvey knows that fewer students are majoring in physics
every year, and he doesn't purport to turn that around.
"We have about six-to-eight declared majors a year," he
says. "People see it as a lot of work without a lot of pay
at the end. The Cold War used to finance a lot of defense
work, but not anymore."
So it's his job, Garvey feels, to make the teaching relevant
to every day life, and if that means cranking tiny generators
in a darkened classroom, so be it. And, according to Shertzer,
that's exactly the strength he has in teaching, and it's
what helped him win the award.
"He never stops questioning the way to teach, and he's
not afraid to abandon the traditional ways. He has rethought
the whole general physics agenda, always emphasizing the
application of the physical concepts to everyday life," she
She uses electricity and magnetism as an example. "The
ability to convert mechanical energy to electrical power
and electrical power back to mechanical energy, influences
every aspect of our lives. Many textbooks will devote pages
to the torque exerted on a loop in a magnetic field and the
theory of electromagnetic induction and then relegate the
motor and the electrical generator to an optional section.
Bob insisted that one of our first purchases with the Sherman
Fairchild grant was a dozen motors and a dozen generators.
He thinks the Industrial Revolution is important!"
The course also includes a section on 20th-century physics. "Most
of these students are not physics majors; this is the only
physics course they'll ever take," Shertzer says. "We had
better teach them something about lasers and radioactivity
and nuclear reactions."
As to her partner in writing the grant winning such a prestigious
award, Shertzer says, "He's so humble about it, it's typical
of him not to take too much credit for it. No one realizes
how many different things he's done here."
Garvey is also Holy Cross' science coordinator, responsible
for coordinating the partnership programs in science and
math with the Worcester public schools. He has taught in
the Youth Exploring Science (YES) program, the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute Summer Science Workshop for Worcester public
school science and math teachers, and co-developed, with
Professor Jane Van Doren, a weather program for 400 sixth-grade
students that he team teaches every May.
"The outreach he does in the Worcester schools is amazing," Shertzer
says. "He brings in busloads of kids, teaches eight sections
of the same thing. Everything he does, everything he teaches,
he puts in 200 percent.
"He's not satisfied with the way things are," she says. "He's
always trying to improve them."
"Make it relevant, make it interesting, make it real," might
well be the mantra to Garvey's teaching. And, he would add, "make
yourself human while you do it."
"I heard a student say one time that she was driving down
the street and saw a professor of hers putting out the garbage," Garvey
says, eyebrows raised. "And she was amazed by that, that
a professor would be doing that everyday stuff."
Too often, that's the fault of academia itself, which tends
to operate on a self-perceived theory of social superiority,
he says. Garvey thinks the ivory-tower approach to teaching
is nonsense and goes out of his way to show students he's
just one of them, only with more degrees and years behind
him, just a guy still eager to learn and as eager to pass
along what he knows to others.
"I think a teacher should make the effort to say something
to students to let them know that they know what's going
on in the world, to show that not all teachers are totally
cut off from the world."
Garvey, who joined Holy Cross in 1977 after getting an
undergraduate degree from Loyola College and completing his
graduate work at Penn State, says he was in college when
President John F. Kennedy was killed, a day that makes everyone
from that generation recall exactly where they were and what
they were doing when they heard the news.
"I didn't have a single teacher mention it," Garvey says,
still incredulous at the thought. "Not one."
So just about every day, in every class, Garvey makes some
reference to the news of the day, perhaps relating it to
the lesson du jour, perhaps just making idle chatter about
it, but always for a reason.
"You're just trying to let them know you're a human being," he
says. "I don't want them to think I'm their buddy, I'm not,
I'm their teacher. But I'm a human being."
Keeping it at that level makes teaching more relevant and
keeps teachers more accessible to students.
"I always say if you can ask me a question that I can't
answer," he says, "I'll find out the answer, and then we'll
Paul E. Kandarian is a free-lance writer from Taunton, Mass.