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After 20 years, Henkel retains passion for classroom teaching

Until a moment ago, Jim Henkel's voice was calm and controlled, even somewhat soft. His posture was relaxed but business-like. Meeting mode. But as he starts to talk about how he feels when he's standing in front of a class, a perceptible change occurs. A hint of passion creeps into his voice and a smile slowly breaks across his face.

"When you are trying to explain a complex concept to people who are bright and motivated, but who just for whatever reason are not getting it, and then you have that breakthrough moment where they finally understand, there's a real rush to that. It's an incredible feeling. I know anyone who's ever taught has experienced this, but you never get bored with the feeling. And to be honest, I think that feeling is part of why we teach."

With this kind of passion for his work, it is easy to see why Henkel, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, was chosen as Teaching Fellow for the 1997-1998 academic year by the University's Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Henkel received this recognition based on peer and student evaluations and recommendations. The accolades are well-deserved. Over his 20-year career he has been an innovator in the classroom, experimenting with such techniques as computer-animation, team-teaching, problem-based learning, and the virtual classroom well before they became fashionable. And since 1977, student evaluations have consistently placed him well above the average for his department.

But all this becomes even more impressive when it's revealed that over the last few years, in addition to teaching two courses a semester, Henkel has also been carrying the full-time responsibilities of associate vice provost for research and graduate education and associate dean of the graduate school.

How does he do this and still maintain quality in both his administrative duties and teaching?

"It's not easy, and to be honest, it can get pretty frustrating some times," he says. "However I believe it's essential to do a good job no matter what I do. With the teaching it obviously takes a lot of work. But I really enjoy it, so I keep going."

This semester, Henkel is teaching Pharmacy 233 "Bio-organic Chemistry I" and Pharmacy 214 "Drugs and the Diseased State II." The latter is generally acknowledged as the most difficult course in the curriculum by School of Pharmacy faculty and students.

"There's a lot of very complex information and never enough time to spend on all of it," Henkel says. "It really does require the students to work very hard."

The 214 class has nearly 100 students in it, but Henkel sees the large number of students as a challenge rather than a limitation.

"Certainly you have to present the material somewhat differently to 100 people than you would to, say, 15 or 20," he says. "But that's not an unmanageable size, and it does present certain opportunities."

As an example, Henkel cites an active learning exercise that he tries to incorporate into many class meetings.

"I try to give them a multiple choice question, sort of without warning. After they've made their selections, I ask them to turn to the person next to them and try and convince their fellow student why the particular choice they made is right. I let them go a minute or so. It can get spirited, but it's also a great learning tool."

Henkel has expanded the exercise on his virtual classroom site. Among the site's contents is a sample exam with multiple choice questions. As an answer is selected, an explanation appears detailing why the selection does or does not answer the question correctly.

Henkel adds that he answers all the e-mail questions he receives from students. And during a recent Pharmacy 214 class, despite the number of students, no one seemed intimidated about asking questions, and Henkel was thoughtful and direct with his answers.

Judging from his evaluations, he also is successful.

A student who has since gone on to a career at the National Institutes of Health wrote: "As a lecturer in pharmacy courses, Dr. Henkel invested considerable time and effort to introduce the concepts ... this effective technique made the content more vivid and built on the core course material."

Henkel said he was honored to be recognized as a teaching fellow, an award that carries with it a stipend of $2,500 and recognition at Commencement and Scholars Day ceremonies.

Despite the fellowship and the praise from colleagues and students, however, Henkel hints that his various administrative duties may ultimately pull him away from the classroom.

"It has been more and more difficult over the last few years," he says. "And we are looking to really expand and improve a lot of things we are doing in research administration."

Henkel adds that keeping up with the literature on drug design and various drug products can be nearly a full-time job in itself. But would he ever consider stepping away from teaching altogether?

"I would really miss it," he says. "I enjoy it so much. There's something gratifying about every day I do it. There are not many things you can say that about."

David Pesci