Distinguished Teaching: Crossing Boundaries

August 1, 2006
Engaged and engaging: historian of science Mauskopf

Engaged and engaging: historian of science Mauskopf. Les Todd

Seymour Mauskopf, a historian of science affectionately known to his students as "Sy," has been his own best advertisement for the benefits of interdisciplinary study, demonstrating time and again, through a variety of programs and courses, the virtues of breaking through disciplinary boundaries. "He has done nothing less than change the way I think about the ways in which the sciences and the humanities--two giant entities that are often kept apart in contemporary times--can be analyzed in interconnected ways," according to one of his students. Mauskopf has been promoting interdisciplinary study at Duke for most of his academic career. In 1979, he became director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Human Values; Mauskopf directed the FOCUS Program, which provides small-group, interdisciplinary learning environments for freshmen, from 1995 to 2003.

The same student was impressed with Mauskopf's willingness to foster an environment of intellectual engagement outside the classroom: "Our seminar met alternately at Duke and at UNC-Chapel Hill, and my conversations with Sy during our Robertson bus rides to UNC illuminated his utter excitement in the field of the history of science." Mauskopf's commitment to Duke students is also reflected in his work as president of the Duke chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, an organization he was admitted to as an undergraduate student at Cornell University. His interdisciplinary approach, respect for his students, and excitement about teaching are just a few of the characteristics that have earned him the Duke Alumni Association's 2006 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award.

In addition to teaching and working closely with students, Mauskopf makes time for community involvement and scholarship. As one of the students who nominated him for the award put it, "Sy makes the time to teach four courses, tutor a Durham resident trying to obtain his GED, publish his own writings, serve as an adviser to three undergraduates who are completing their honors theses, and still have time to grab dinner with me on the weekend."

Before meeting Mauskopf, the student said, he had planned a traditional pre-med education."But now, thanks in large part to Sy, I have decided to take some time off and to do Teach For America.I realize that there is much more to life than just academic excellence; there is more to this world than the notoriety that comes with receiving a degree from a prestigious institution like our very own."His students say Mauskopf's abilities as a teacher, a scholar, and a mentor emphasize the close links between these roles, indeed, even the artificiality of such divisions.

Mauskopf earned an A.B. from Cornell in 1960 and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1966. He completed postdoctoral work at University College of London in the history of medicine in 1968-69. He began his teaching career at Duke in 1964. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1966, associate professor in 1972, and professor of history in 1980. He has written four books--including The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychic Research (with Michael McVaugh), on the work of Duke's J.B. Rhine--and sixteen chapters, along with numerous articles in professional publications. He received the Dexter Award for outstanding achievement in the history of chemistry from the American Chemical Society.

The Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award will be presented to Mauskopf during Founders' Day ceremonies on September 28. The award includes a $5,000 stipend and $1,000 for Duke Libraries to purchase materials recommended by the recipient.