Bellet Award winners demonstrate innovative teaching methods


Three faculty members of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences have been selected for the 2019 Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award, honoring faculty who use “innovative teaching” methods in undergraduate studies.

Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, & Women’s Studies program; Geoffrey Glover, a lecturer II in the Department of English; and Jeffrey Wheeler, a lecturer II in the Department of Mathematics are the 2019 award recipients.

The award was established in 1998 by Dietrich School alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina. Award recipients can each receive a one-time cash prize of $6,000, according to the University.

The University Times asked the award recipients about their teaching philosophy and what the award means to them. Responses have been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Julie Beaulieu

Julie BeaulieuFor the past three years, Beaulieu has taught several courses related to LGBTQIA+ issues, feminism and sexuality at Pitt. She earned her bachelor’s in English/Women’s Studies at the University of Southern Maine, and her Ph.D. in English with a certificate in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies from Pitt.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

When teaching, I strive to create the space where multiple voices are valued and respected. Learning communities inevitably bring diverse views. The best teaching environments keep these diverse perspectives in play, working through our different reasons for resisting the knowledge of others.

In the classroom, I focus on how we come to know, and the obstacles that prevent us from transforming our collective and individual habits of thought. These combined methods of teaching offer an illustration of the various ways that critical thinking is produced out of exchange — among thinkers in the classroom, among people in the world, and among readers and writers of texts. I decided to become a teacher precisely because of the value I find in productive collaboration and exchange, and it is this that I strive to cultivate in my students.

Why do you think you were selected for this award?

My deep commitment to transformative pedagogy comes from my experience in the University. As a first-generation college graduate and Ph.D., when I left rural Maine to attend the University of Southern Maine, I entered an unfamiliar space. I had tremendous support and mentors along the way, and I am acutely aware of how vital support is because of my history. I suspect that my deep gratitude for the community of educators and mentors that brought me here shows up in my teaching; I get how important our roles are as educators and I try very hard to maintain awareness of this in practice.

What does the award mean to you?

Awards say “we see you and we honor you”; it’s difficult to capture the precise impact of that, but I see this as a form of basic sustenance in witnessing and showing gratitude. There is also a bit of hopefulness and promise in that awards also say, “we are excited to see what you’ll do next.” Recognition from the Pitt community is particularly inspiring and humbling because it is coming from the same community that provided the space for my growth as a scholar and educator.   

Geoffrey Glover

Geoffrey GloverGlover has taught at Pitt since 2012. He earned his bachelor's in English/Secondary Education at Mercyhurst College, his master’s in English at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University. His studies focus on science fiction, African-American identity and literature and more.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy is grounded in three concepts: Inquiry, Community and Transparency. I incorporate a focus on inquiry into my teaching methodology mainly by encouraging the development of an interpretative community in the classroom. This approach stresses multiple possible answers to any given question and privileges questioning and decision-making skills among students.

This is mainly done through positioning multiple answers to a question in relationship to each other to foster analysis of the points of overlap, the contested issues, as well as the similarities in argumentation. I encourage my students to navigate these fields of meaning through guiding questions, which highlight the students’ process of negotiation.

When discussing African-American literature, this methodological approach manifests in three ways: I start by encouraging my students to question their assumptions about the coursework itself, as well as our relationship with the coursework, early in the semester.  Students must be able to identify their stake, the author’s stake, and mine, in the topic/reading.

Secondly, I articulate the hidden aspects of a given question (politics, assumptions, beliefs, investitures, etc.) as a way to help students see the meaning making processes behind writing and reading as complex interactions between multiple social forces. Navigating these contexts is essential to make student writing “effective.”

Finally, my studies of unequal power relationships have made me sensitive to the power dynamics of my classroom. I never try to imply that I am not in a position of power in the classroom. That would be disingenuous. Instead I try to define what my position is, what I am trying to do, and what my expectations are in a given situation. I stress communication and transparency as ways to understand and work with the unavoidable power structures of the classroom.

My studies of African-American literature have impressed upon me the idea that all writing, even “entertaining” fiction, has more than one function. One of those additional functions that most often manifests in African-American literature is the use of writing and reading as a means to create/revise/support personal identities for both the writer and the reader. These opportunities for revision are heavily influenced by the interpretative communities in which they occur.

Why do you think you were selected for this award?

A combination of good teaching practices and solid planning led to my selection for this award. I plan out my courses extensively, as many of our best teachers do. I prioritize meaning making in our discussions, interpretations, and writing, as well, which many students find empowers them (at the same time that it makes them responsible for their own opinions).

This means that much of our in-class discussion needs to focus on negotiating multiple meanings without falling into a classwide hierarchy of meaning. Understanding the process of interaction between these student meanings becomes more important than consensus around a single “truth” about the text.

What does the award mean to you?

First, it is a validation of the hard work from the network of gifted teachers in and out of the English department and from my students who define themselves by their eagerness to learn. These two groups remind me that I am in good company in my pursuit of teaching excellence here at Pitt. It also reminds me that I am still becoming the teacher I want to be.

The skills, approaches and collaborations that got me to this point are not done evolving. I learn something new from each collaboration, each class, and every new student interaction. Finally, it is a small measure of repayment to those who came before. Like many of us, I have a long list of family, friends, other teachers, and scholars who paved the way for me to succeed. It is a necessary reminder that we never succeed alone.

Jeffrey WheelerJeffrey Wheeler

Wheeler has taught at Pitt since 2008. He earned his bachelor’s in mathematics and statistics from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; his master’s in mathematics from the University of Tennessee; and his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Memphis. His main areas of focus include number theory, operations research and algebra.

What is your teaching philosophy?

My approach to educating is primarily grounded in my view of the discipline I teach: mathematics is both difficult and beautiful.  For even the most gifted, there is some math class that will cause them to question their ability.  The reward for continuing, though, is problem solving, the revelation of structure, unexpected complexity, and truths that defy intuition.  Complementing these views are the assumptions that guide my management style: people give better results if they are motivated and they are motivated if they find value in what they doing or, even better, love doing it.

As math is difficult, upper level students are typically not surprised that a course they are taking is challenging.  On the other hand, first year students that had calculus in high school typically need to be convinced that our calculus classes operate at a much higher level (this convincing is not often a pleasant experience).  As such, a major goal when I teach is to do what I can to get students to come to class and to pay attention.  I try to accomplish this primarily through humor, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (and that’s okay).

Given that beauty is subjective, I cannot expect all of my students to admire what I admire, but some do and the rest at least deserve the opportunity.  To this end, I seek to work into lectures brief bits like why quintics are not solvable or use calculus to show that eip + 1 = 0.  Sometimes utility is what motivates the students, so I also value including discussions on how the material we are covering is used in something interesting (and marketable!) like spam filters, machine learning, computer security, or baseball analytics.  What I enjoy most, though, is finding a topic a student is interested in and encouraging them to explore it and give a presentation.   There is great joy in watching someone gain tremendous confidence learning and accomplishing something on their own. I have had numerous students do this: how quaternions were used in the animation of "Toy Story 3," the abstract algebra theorem and proof that appeared in an episode of "Futurama," etc. and this was my biggest motivation for starting our department’s Undergraduate Mathematics Seminar.

Why do you believe you were selected?

I was selected because I have good students that work hard and make me look good. Pitt students are very capable and highly motivated and if I do anything well it is that I do a good job of meeting them where they are, creating an opportunity for them, and coaching, critiquing, and encouraging them through the process.  I also make my expectations clear and my expectations are excellence.

I have also successfully proposed three new courses in the department with my BIG Problems course exemplifying the traits expressed in the previous paragraph.  In this class, students form teams to work on problems obtained from area businesses and organizations. My expectations are that the student teams will 1) give a deliverable to the client, 2) present their work to the client, 3) present their work to the math department, 4) present their work at a Mathematical Association of America conference, and 5) prepare an academic paper. The class is fun because I never know how the problem will be solved or even if we can do it, but (so far) every team has come through; and the students often get very good jobs from the experience, including a student from last Spring’s class that now does analytics for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Contributing also, I believe, is that I started and still committee the Undergraduate Mathematics Seminar. The seminar meets weekly and was designed to give undergraduates the chance to see some math they may not see in a class and – more importantly – the opportunity to give a presentation on something interesting but accessible to undergraduates. The seminar’s first year was 2014-15 in which I organized 15 of the 22 talks including the head of analytics for the Pittsburgh Pirates and supervised the five undergraduate talks given that year.

It is important to note that neither the Big Problems class nor the Undergraduate Mathematics Seminar would happen without a supportive chair and colleagues as well as very helpful and professional office staff.

What does the award mean to you?

My father was a coal miner and he, my mother, and my extended family all were proud to be an influential part of seeing a family member be the first to graduate from college yet alone earn a PhD. The award affirms their value of always working hard and honors their sacrifices for my education. Apart from this, the personal accomplishment aspect is secondary to me to the student respect and appreciation that I have received.  A teaching award from students (inaugural honors fraternity LS Teacher of the Month October 2012), past students connecting with me, thank you notes, and former students seeking me out when they are back on campus are my greatest rewards. 

This does not mean that I lightly value the Tina and David Bellet Excellence in Teaching Award as the contrary is very much true. I have been at the University of Pittsburgh for 11 years and, in addition, have taught at eight other colleges and universities. Between my personal experience and my discussions with close friends at other schools, I can confidently state that I am in a department whose value of teaching is a few standard deviations above the norm compared to other math departments. Top to bottom, the Department of Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh is concerned with educating its undergraduate students, and this is manifested in many ways. I have discovered that his departmental value is one that is reinforced from above; namely that the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh also highly values teaching... and rewards it. It is a privilege and a valued opportunity to be engaged with very talented and determined students and the deal is only sweeter given that, though I am at a large research school, my efforts in the classroom are acknowledged and rewarded. The Bellets’ generosity gives the school an opportunity to celebrate successful and innovative educators and foster an environment that will continue to reinforce that teaching undergraduates is a key component of our mission and is still highly valued.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.

Update: 03/21/2019 Wheeler's responses to the questions have been added to the story.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Wheeler began teaching at Pitt in 2016. It has been updated to reflect that he's taught at Pitt since 2008.