Willamette politics professor recognized for innovative courses and dedication to students
When he was beginning his teaching career at Willamette University, Sammy Basu was a bit of a prankster.
He’d arrive to class early and take a seat in the back of the room, assuming the “standard, slumped student position.” Then he’d wait, eavesdropping on the conversations that unfurled around him.
When the moment was right, Basu would leap to his feet and announce his true identity. To this day, he chuckles at the memory of his students’ reactions.
“Jaws would drop. Students would look dazed and confused,” says Basu, who teaches politics. “There were challenges to my authority early on because I looked so young. That always amused me. The obvious lesson was, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’”
I’m convinced that Basu knows the meaning of life but he would never give it away.
Twenty years later, Basu’s use of the element of surprise is still central to his desire to improve his students’ lives. This dedication has earned Basu the honor of being named the 2013 Oregon Professor of the Year.
Recognized for his innovative courses and his passion for teaching, Basu joins the ranks of 10 other Willamette professors who have received the award since 1990 — two of whom also hail from the politics department.
The honor is administered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Basu is receiving his award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Nov. 14.
"It’s humbling and terrifying,” Basu says about the recognition. “I know the past recipients at Willamette, and they are all gifted teachers. To be counted among them is a great honor."
Making His Mark
When Basu interviewed at Willamette in 1993, he had just earned his doctorate in politics from Princeton University. He had limited classroom teaching experience, and he was unfamiliar with Oregon.
During his second day in Salem, he went to McMenamins with several of his soon-to-be colleagues. Almost immediately, the faculty began discussing their students, expressing concern and enthusiasm about how they were doing.
“That floored me,” Basu says. “The faculty believed in what they did. They took their jobs seriously, and they took real interest in having a positive impact on their students. That’s when I knew this would be a good fit for me.”
Since then, Basu’s work has consistently earned high praise from students and other faculty members. In 1999, he was selected as the students’ choice for Mortar Board Professor of the Year. He received a Faculty Achievement Award for Teaching and Service three times — in 1995, 2002 and 2011 — and the Jerry E. Hudson Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2007.
Since 2011, he’s also served as coordinator of the College Colloquium — an array of 40 distinctly themed seminars that serve as the academic centerpiece for incoming first-year students.
For Caty Buckley ’98, this commitment to students’ development is what most impresses her about Basu.
“I continue to cite Sammy Basu as a mentor. He was and continues to be a touchstone for me,” says Buckley, a politics major who has since become a social worker in Portland.
“I have profound gratitude for all the energy and time that he spent with me, and I was only one among many.”
Cheyenne Boon ’17 agrees. She’s taking Basu’s College Colloquium course, “Decisions, Decisions,” which uses behavioral economics, neuroscience and novels to shed light on how people engage in processes of decision making.
So far, she says Basu has succeeded in making students question everything they think they know.
“I’m convinced that Basu knows the meaning of life, but he would never give it away,” Boon says. “I’m always hoping that one day he’ll let it slip, either on purpose or by accident. Until then, he answers my questions with more questions.”
A Teacher of Teachers
Throughout his tenure at Willamette, Basu has impressed his students and colleagues by inventing a steady stream of new and innovative curricula.
Sammy's example continually inspires me and my colleagues to reach, challenge and support our students.
In “Death in America,” Basu blends public policy and ethics to probe such issues as health care coverage, capital punishment and occupational fatalities.
In “Writing Political Humor,” he explores the possibilities and perils involved in writing political humor, and in “Democracy and Nazism,” Basu investigates Weimar Germany and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power — analyzing how everything from art to zoology was used in political and moral contestation about democracy and authoritarianism.
“Each of these three courses, like Sammy’s own research, is iconoclastic, interdisciplinary, grounded in revealing primary documents and leavened by scholarship of the highest quality,” says Richard Ellis, a politics professor who was named Oregon Professor of the Year in 2008.
“You will not find Sammy’s advanced courses at any other political science department in the nation. They are, like their creator, true originals.”
Assistant politics professor Jonneke Koomen says Basu’s writing assignments are rigorous and intense. He excels at using digital tools as teaching aids, and he remains attuned to his students’ academic potential and to their personal struggles.
In short, he leads by example — spurring her to become a more supportive teacher and adviser to her students.
“Sammy’s example continually inspires me and my colleagues to reach, challenge and support our students. He is truly a teacher of teachers,” she says.
Putting Students First
Although Basu has won numerous teaching awards during his career, he says that what matters most are the students.
He enjoys watching them take pride in their work. He relishes the chance to free them of self-doubt, and he eagerly anticipates the moments when they surprise themselves.
As long as he continues to make a difference in this way, Basu believes that he’s doing something right.
“For me, the goal is to make students more aware, more conscious,” he says. “I take great satisfaction when students do work of a quality they didn’t think they were capable of doing. My job is to enable students to do this. Then I get out of their way.”