There are some teachers you just don’t forget. Nominated by alumni, these professors are among the best and most inspiring on the Forty Acres. Meet this year’s Texas 10.
Associate Professor, Social Work
Miguel Ferguson will do whatever it takes to get his students’ attention. From opening classes with a group sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to pairing his students as writing partners with prisoners serving life sentences, Ferguson’s teaching goes far beyond lectures and PowerPoint presentations.
The son of a Mexican mother and an Irish father, Ferguson developed a passion for social justice while attending diverse, inner-city schools. “It never made sense to me that some of my friends had to work 20-hour weeks to help their parents, while other friends got BMWs and trips to Europe,” he says. “I asked, ‘Why do we have such inequality in the midst of plenty in this country?’”
Ferguson has devoted his career to exploring that question. He teaches classes on poverty, social policy, welfare reform program evaluation, and social justice—all to students from vastly different backgrounds. In his social-policy class, a graduate student with a decade of professional experience might sit next to a 19-year-old freshman.
How does he connect such disparate audiences? “You get them interested, and then you set up assignments that let them run from where they are,” he says.
Ferguson takes a similarly creative approach to his free time. An avid singer and guitarist, he’s also marketing his first movie script, based on the actions of American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
In the true spirit of social work, Ferguson’s aim is to better the lives of his students. “You like to think you touch students in some small way, and sometimes it’s maybe a little bigger than just a small way,” Ferguson says. “They are truly what gets me up in the morning.” —Jack McBee and Rose Cahalan
Associate Professor, Anthropology
“Are you ready to have your mind blown?”
That’s how Chris Kirk, BA ’95, begins a few of the lectures in his Introduction to Physical Anthropology course each semester. Some topics, like primate infanticide—when male primates kill infants in order to secure mating opportunities—can always be depended on to make even the most uninterested student perk up. “It’s one of those moments where people’s horror at the topic kind of creates an opening,” he says.
Kirk believes that students respond to enthusiasm more than anything else, and his own is never in short supply. He tends to wander around the room as he lectures, and during our phone call he confesses that he’s pacing back and forth in his living room. “I can’t stay put,” Kirk says. “If I don’t fall off of the dais at least once a semester, I know I’m not moving around enough.”
As he’s teaching, Kirk constantly scans the room for signs of life. “Students let you know if they’re not getting it—just look at their faces. Are you losing them? They aren’t going to stand up and say, ‘Well I don’t understand!’ or ‘This really isn’t that interesting to me!’ but they might as well if you are really attending to all the signals they’re sending you.”
Earlier in the day, Kirk had been corresponding with a former student now teaching anthropology at Duke University, where Kirk completed his PhD. “Nothing pleases me more than when a great undergrad gets so interested that they end up as one of your colleagues. I’m just at the point in my career when I’m starting to see this happening—10 years down the line—and I’m perfectly giddy with that outcome.” —Dorothy Guerrero
Distinguished Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences
Ruth Buskirk fell in love with biology as a child while exploring nature on family camping trips.
“I loved hiking around, seeing wildlife, and sort of figuring out for myself what ecology meant,” Buskirk says.
Today, Buskirk is a distinguished senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at UT, where she has taught for 25 years. She researches behavior and physiology, like the work of orb-weaving spiders or animals acting strangely before earthquakes.
A big part of her job is getting students as excited about biology as she is. Buskirk says that can be a challenge, but she always relishes seeing “the light go on.”
“Sometimes I don’t know until I receive a note from the student at the end of the semester,” Buskirk says. “I think the most successful approach to engaging a student is to see how the biology we’re studying in class relates to his or her own life.”
In recent years, this has changed the way she teaches. Buskirk says a lecture is never enough—her students stay engaged with hands-on activities.
The biggest challenge, she says, has been getting students to focus on higher-level thinking.
“We’re all used to just getting information online,” Buskirk says. “That’s fine for the little details, but you really have to work to understand the concepts. I think that’s the challenge for current students.” —Katy McDowall
Meet our other Texas 10 professors here.
Photo by Matt Wright-Steel.
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