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McKenna receives award

Madeline Buckley | Friday, September 26, 2008

Well-known on campus for his friendliness and a talent for tap dancing, Dr. James McKenna, a professor in the anthropology department, accepted the Charles E. Sheedy award for excellence in teaching Thursday.

The Sheedy award has been given annually to a professor in the College of Arts and Letters since 1970, according to the College’s Web site.

Sociology professor Dan Myers introduced McKenna as “the nicest guy in the world,” joking that it is impossible to walk across campus with him in a timely manner because there are always numerous students and faculty who stop him to chat.

McKenna told the Observer he felt humbled, shocked and gratified when he heard that he was to receive the award.

“What could be better than being told that you do well at something for which doing well means pretty much everything,” he said.

McKenna stressed the idea that teaching is a personal experience in which you have to transcend anonymity and make students realize that the teacher cares about them personally.

“For me, teaching is not a science, but a unique art form,” McKenna said at the award ceremony held in McKenna Hall.

He said his teaching style involves getting to know every student on a personal level.

“I pretend I am teaching not to a class, but to one person, as if I am having a conversation,” McKenna said.

His teaching philosophies are partly inspired by his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Masimina Rose, he said. “Everyday she would greet us one by one, hug us and whisper a personal message in our ear, telling us what a great day we would have,” he said.

“Learning was just enormously enjoyable and rewarding which reflects this notion that we are sensitive to the relational aspects of learning,” McKenna said.

McKenna began his teaching career at 25 at University of California Berkeley. The first class he taught was a large lecture class, he said.

“I looked 15 years old and every T.A. was older than me by 5 years…but I survived,” McKenna said.

Thirty-four years later, McKenna said every class he teaches now is just as exciting, if not more, as the very first class he taught.

“I’ve often asked myself how could I not be tired of some of the fundamental information, but I never tire of it and I know why that is the case,” he said. “You see on the faces of your students the very surprise, excitement and shock that was on my face when I first learned about some of the anthropological concepts, and its like I am learning it all over again.”

Along with teaching Anthropology classes, McKenna teaches an Irish American tap dance class, turning his lifelong passion for dance into a University course.

A dancer since the age of two, McKenna has performed on the Lawrence Welk show as well as several other television programs, he said.

“The minute I saw Fred Astaire dancing on TV, I went to the nearest floor and moved my feet,” McKenna said. “I was a dancer before I was anything.”

The tap class combines Irish hard shoe dancing with American tap dancing, McKenna said. The course, which is available to faculty and staff, teaches several dances and ends with a recital in South Dining Hall.

Although a tap dancing professor is a strange image, it is good for the students to see that even faculty members have diverse hobbies and skills, he said.

McKenna’s students and colleagues praise his personal teaching style and fun personality.

Sophomore Elizabeth Benson said she was impressed that McKenna made a point to get to know everyone her Honors Introduction to Anthropology class.

“He learned our names really quickly,” she said. “You could tell he really loved teaching.”

She said she did not know much about Anthropology before the course, but loved it by the end of the class.

“I am an anthropology major now because I liked his class so much,” Benson said.

Senior Kelly Donley took McKenna’s Irish American tap class as a junior and now is a T.A. for the class.

“He is good at communicating with the class and is always encouraging,” she said. “He tap dances for us and has us do Irish Hard shoe dances as well as dance to a Michael Jackson number,” she said.

“It is one of the best classes I have taken,” Donley said. “He is like Fred Astaire.”

Professor Dan Myers, last year’s Sheedy award winner and the faculty member that nominated McKenna, said Professor McKenna is a mentor and teaching partner to him.

“Jim is the nicest person you would ever want to meet in your life … that niceness is part of his teaching,” he said. “People love him.”