Texas Law Prof. H.W. Perry has been awarded the 2018-19 Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship. The Friar Society, the university’s oldest and most prestigious honor society, awards the Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship annually to one outstanding undergraduate professor. It is the largest undergraduate faculty award at UT Austin with an annual award of $25,000.
Members of the Friar Society wrote, “After researching and considering the sixty professors who were nominated, we were convinced that Professor Perry, who had multiple student recommendations, clearly deserved to be recognized for his impressive academic accomplishments and unique impact on the greater UT community.”
This is not the first award Professor Perry has received in recognition of his masterful teaching. In 2015, he was named one of the eleven faculty members from The University of Texas at Austin chosen to receive Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award by the Board of Regents, honoring outstanding performance in the classroom and dedication to innovation in undergraduate instruction. Prof. H.W. Perry was the recipient of the 2017 Teaching and Mentoring Award from the Law and Courts Section of the American Political Science Teaching Association. The Teaching and Mentoring Award recognizes innovative teaching and instructional methods and materials in law and courts.
We spoke with Professor Perry about his experience receiving the largest undergraduate faculty award at UT Austin.
How does it feel to receive this honor?
I was deeply touched and honored—and surprised. I haven’t yet wiped the smile off my face.
This award is presented by a student organization. Does that give it special significance?
What is especially meaningful to me about this award is that it is a teaching award that is truly from the students. The nominations come from students, and those who select the winner are students. Students from around campus nominate professors—over 60 were nominated this year. The Friar’s Society is over 100 years old. The members are a remarkable group of students, as are their alumni, which makes receiving the award even more humbling. Our own John Beckworth is an alum. Only a very few students are inducted each year—sometimes as few as 5– and they are excellent students who have done remarkable things to make UT better. For example, this year one inductee was a woman who worked very hard to make access to mental health services for students easier and affordable; or another young man is one who has made changes to help diabetics be able to function better at the University; and one of our remarkable law students, Cameron Carlock ’18, was inducted.
How has teaching shaped your research and writing?
Teaching law students, Ph.D. Students, and undergraduates forces me to think about a topic in many different ways. As with my law students, I teach my undergraduate classes using the Socratic method and the case discussion method. I love it when a student asks a question or frames something in a way that I have never thought of. Interestingly, undergraduates are particularly good at this. For example, I have recently been lecturing abroad trying to write about hate speech in a comparative context. The way my students wrestle with this issue is making me wrestle with the way I think about it as a matter of First Amendment law. I think this is reflected in my scholarship and writing style.
What was the role of your own teachers in preparing you for this profession?
Immeasurable. As a first generation college student, they opened my eyes and mind in so many ways, but equally important, they pushed me to believe I could do more than I had ever imagined I could. As a result, I see mentoring as one of my most important roles. When I refer to teachers, I mean both college and secondary teachers. Though I like to think we college professors play an important role in teaching our students to love learning, in many ways it was a junior high or high school teacher that provided the first spark and encouragement. In my office hours, I often have enthusiastic students tell me how Ms. Thompson, or Mr. Gonzalez was just amazing, and how she or he brought the material to life. As I am sitting there, I sometimes think, “So what am I, chopped liver?” I always ask the student if they have ever told the teacher that, and the answer is usually no. I try to get them to promise me to go home and write that teacher and tell him or her. It will mean the world to her. I do a lot of work with public school teachers on teaching the Constitution. So many of them work so hard to teach and inspire their students. I cannot believe how little our society and government support our teachers. As a society, we are being so shortsighted instrumentally, and morally. What in the world are we thinking?
Who would you like to thank, if anyone?
Of course the Friars. Their generosity with their time and money is a clear signal that good teaching is important and inspiring. And then, my students. My style of teaching depends upon students engaging with the material and with me. I am known as a demanding teacher, and I believe that if we challenge students, it often helps them reach their potential. My students rise to the challenge. I am a fan of the Goethe quote, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Sheldon Ekland-Olson, former Dean of Liberal Arts and Provost. He interviewed me when I came here from teaching at Harvard, and though I knew I was being hired for my scholarship in public law, he encouraged me to also stay passionate and committed to my teaching. Our law school is known for its commitment to good teaching, and the Deans with whom I have worked value good teaching. Finally, I am fortunate to be married to a star teacher, Meme Drumwright, who is not only stellar in the classroom, but also who has had remarkable success at making things happen in undergraduate education at UT that many thought could never happen. The amount of time that we discuss about how to improve what is going on in our classes is substantial. She has made me a much a better teacher.
I’m sure people want to know: what will you do with that generous prize money?
Well, I might finally be able to afford Hamilton tickets.