Jonathan Glasser awarded Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award
Jonathan Glasser sometimes finds himself immersed in and thoroughly enjoying teaching to the point of delight.
“When a class goes really well, I even would say it’s kind of amusing,” said Glasser, associate professor of anthropology at William & Mary. “I sometimes find myself actually amused by teaching, which is a little bit hard to picture given the topics I teach about. But there’s something very playful about teaching — about that interaction.”
It’s that love of connecting students with knowledge and ways of obtaining it that earned him the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award.
Glasser said his longest connection to W&M is with the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, which he joined in 2006 before becoming a faculty member as an adjunct in 2007, then later as a visiting assistant professor, and eventually as a tenure-track professor in anthropology. He is also affiliated with the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program and is a research associate in the Department of History.
So he’s seen teaching from many different perspectives and has had plenty of formal and informal opportunities to influence students and colleagues.
'Commitment to his students'
Brad Weiss, chair of the anthropology department, noted in his recommendation letter that Glasser used his own research startup funds and a competitive grant from the Reves Center for International Studies to bring a group of students to Morocco in summer 2014 to perform with professional Moroccan musicians during a 10-day tour. Weiss described Glasser as a tireless advocate for students and a gifted instructor, contributing substantially to the anthropology curriculum at every level from freshman seminars and introductory lectures to graduate seminars and performance-oriented courses.
“Jonathan’s commitment to his students is simply unsurpassed by any member of our department,” Weiss wrote.
Glasser enjoys the balance between the solitariness of writing up his research work and the socialization of interacting with students and colleagues, and he described teaching as tremendous fun. Teaching is not a one-way street, said Glasser, who often allows students to guide classroom discussions and encourages them to be active participants in the development of lessons.
“I would say that the big thing is that teaching is learning,” he said. “I learn through my teaching.”
He added that students are amazingly astute at ferreting out anything unclear.
“They know when you’re not understanding something or something doesn’t make sense,” Glasser said. “And so there are certain things that you might get away with in writing to other peers that students don’t let you get away with. So it really does help me understand the concepts much, much better and to also think about what’s an important concept and what’s not an important concept.”
Mahdi Blaine ’16 wrote that the material in two of Glasser’s anthropology classes instantly clicked with him, and they became his two favorites while at W&M. He emphasized that Glasser was always able to highlight and convey how a particular idea or piece is important to the overall lesson.
“Not only was Professor Glasser engaging and thoughtful in class but he also made me care about the material in a way that I never would think to care,” Blaine wrote. “His classes constantly had me stepping back to consider other perspectives of topics I considered myself knowledgeable about.”
A stickler for his total ban on electronic distractions in his classroom, Glasser almost completely eschews the use of PowerPoint to keep the focus on material to be discussed.
“The biggest thing for me in teaching is that it’s a dialogue, teaching students how to carry on that dialogue with one another and with me,” he said.
“The other thing is I try to really listen to what students are saying and what we are reading is saying. And I find that students do notice when their professor is listening and when their professor isn’t listening. And that listening, I think, actually helps engage students. It helps make them better listeners as well.”
Since he started teaching, Glasser has lectured less and less as he encouraged students to participate. He has also assigned older and more difficult texts to allow students to see that relevance is created by learning.
Teaching through music
Playing in the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble and organizing cross-cultural exchanges that connect Moroccan musicians with W&M students also have been opportunities for him to engage in informal teaching and have allowed him to bring students more closely into his research projects.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to teach through music, how to teach certain big questions through actually making music,” Glasser said.
Anne Rasmussen, W&M professor of music and ethnomusicology and director of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, has traveled and performed extensively with Glasser and students.
“Through his teaching and performance, Jonathan Glasser activates his research in a way that can be not only understood and appreciated by students and colleagues, but also experienced as well,” Rasmussen wrote in a recommendation letter.
“Simultaneously he is an advocate for those he represents. While his research is sophisticated and exacting, its processes and products are ultimately collaborative and experiential as he involves his interlocutors, colleagues and students in public projects of the highest caliber that reach transnational and trans-social audiences in ways that scholarly publications never will.”
Georgia Dassler ’16 wrote in her recommendation letter that in her new job as an instructor working with college students, she uses Glasser as her role model for balancing giving students support with letting them learn for themselves.
“One of the most important gifts a teacher can give their students is the chance to learn how to learn,” Dassler wrote. “Such lessons create self-sufficient, empowered individuals who can truly live up to William & Mary’s legacy of scholarship and leadership in service of society.”
Glasser plans to continue to hone his ever-evolving approach to teaching. “I’m still playing with it,” he said. “I love the experimental quality of teaching. I love the fact that there’s never a finished product.”