Art History faculty member Sarah Rich receives 2019 Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2019 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.

They are: Andrew Baxter, associate teaching professor in the Eberly College of Science; Jacqueline Bortiatynski, associate teaching professor in the Eberly College of Science; Liliana Naydan, assistant professor of English at Penn State Abington; Sarah K. Rich, associate professor in the College of Arts and Architecture; John Roth, professor of engineering at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College; and Jennifer Zosh, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine.

The award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.

Rich, who teaches art history, said she gave her first lecture in fifth grade and was hooked ever since. Speaking to her then peers, using diagrams and dialog, she discussed the physiology and domestic habits of hobbits.

These days, the J.R.R Tolkien fan says she’s more interested in abstract paintings of the Cold War than the inhabitants of Middle Earth, but that she’s still happiest in the classroom.

Her creative ways to teach art history include sending students on scavenger hunts for objects related to the topic at hand or creating pigments from 15th-century recipes. While teaching about historic architecture, she invites students to look at campus buildings inspired by different periods.

Rich said a teacher’s first task — especially in undergraduate level courses — is to convey the pleasure of learning about the course material. She shows them that a life steered by curiosity leads to adventure and a more productive connection with the world.

“Teaching, especially in the humanities, should demonstrate a way of looking at the world that is directed by questions, rather than by easy answers, and it should encourage a mode of dwelling that is steeped in wonder, rather than fear of the unknown,” Rich said.

Students praised both Rich’s innovative teaching methods and her interesting course topics such as one focusing on art and money.

“She addresses current issues of valuing artwork, commerce in the related financial realities of the art world,” a student said. “She invited guest speakers on philanthropy and fundraising and she was forthright about the challenges of commercializing art. I have studied art and art history throughout high school and college and I have never even considered the topics that Dr. Rich presented during that class.”

Colleagues also praised her unique approaches to teaching and her courses.

“Dr. Rich is best known in our college by her undergraduate art criticism courses like “Taste and Criticism” and “Art Since You Were Born” or her newly minted interdomain course that combines subject matter from outside fields,” a colleague said. “In the criticism courses she is very skilled in setting up topics for debate, providing room for all the students, including more reticent students to actively contribute.”

Schools and Departments: Department of Art History