Dr. Jerry Polinard, professor of political science and pre-law adviser at The University of Texas-Pan American, was today awarded the prestigious 2010 Minnie Stevens Piper Award, an honor signifying he ranks as one of the top college educators in the state of Texas.
The Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation, a nonprofit charitable corporation formed in 1950, recognizes 15 professors from across the state during each academic year for their dedication to teaching and for outstanding scholarly achievement. Each two and four-year college and university in the state can submit only one nominee annually. Each Piper Professor receives a certificate of merit, a gold pin and a $5,000 honorarium.
"I am humbled," Polinard said. "It is certainly an honor to be selected but it is also a great honor to be nominated by the faculty - colleagues whom I work with and respect."
The Corpus Christi native earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas A&I, now Texas A&M-Kingsville and his Ph.D. in government from the University of Arizona. He said that from the first day he taught a class of college seniors as a 23-year old teaching assistant at UA, he knew teaching was to be his passion.
"I love what I do. Being a university professor of political science is the best job in the world. It is a constant wonderful challenge to be in the classroom and having a conversation with students," he said. "I am never talking about the same thing. Last year we were talking about the upcoming Obama administration. Now we are talking about the Arizona immigration law. Another enjoyable thing about political science is that the questions we ask don't have correct answers like two plus two equals four."
Employing the Socratic method of instruction of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking, Polinard sees the classroom as not just a place to learn facts, which he said a student can obtain from the textbook, but an intellectual exercise.
"My primary goal and what I believe is the purpose of every university class, hopefully, is to teach students to think, to give them a process so that 10 years from now when somebody says what do you think about a controversial issue they have an intellectual process by which they reach conclusions. The secret to it is to ask why," he said.
Last year Polinard's expertise in the classroom was honored with the College of Social and Behavioral Science's Excellence in Teaching Award. Polinard is also UTPA's pre-law adviser and coordinates and teaches a course in the university's Law School Preparation Institute (LSPI), an academically rigorous and highly successful program initiated in 2001 to better prepare students interested in a legal career to enter and succeed in law school. More than 90 percent of the LSPI students who have applied to law school have been accepted. The national average is 60 percent.
He shares his extensive knowledge regarding government as well as his research on Mexican-American political behavior not only with students but with the many statewide and national media representatives who frequently seek out his expert commentary on Texas politics. However, the conversations Polinard has with students in the classroom - a place he calls magical - are the ones that excite him most.
"As a teacher you get great satisfaction from those moments when you see that the student's mind suddenly clicks and that there is thought going on. I once heard a quote that I refer to that the ultimate goal of a liberal arts education is for a student not to learn what they want to be but who they want to be. I hope our university education works like that, that they leave knowing more about who they are," he said.
His colleague for the past 10 years and Department of Political Science chair, Dr. James Wenzel calls Polinard one of the best teachers he has worked with in his 25-year career.
"Professor Polinard has never forgotten, and never misses the opportunity to remind anyone in earshot, that our institution exists for students. From what I can tell, everything he does is geared to further their interests," Wenzel said.
Wenzel described Polinard's dedication to the LSPI "unflagging" and through his involvement with the Pre-Law Advisors National Council, Wenzel said Polinard has become an evangelist for similar programs across the nation. Wenzel added that Polinard was one of the University's most demanding teachers, holding students to high performance standards.
"What I'm struck most often by, though, is not the number of students who did well in Professor Polinard's classes who later compliment his teaching, and many are effusive in their praise, but the number who earned 'C's' (and sometimes lower) who relate that his class was one of the most enriching of their careers. When the 'C' and 'D' students love you after a class you're doing something very right," Wenzel said.
Senior Crystal Del Toro, who will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a minor in political science, said she felt privileged to take three courses from Polinard, a professor she called "a higher caliber of professor" well known across the state yet not intimidating as one might expect him to be to students.
"He makes students feel like he's one with them, like he is no better than anyone else," she said.
A participant in the LSPI, Del Toro said Polinard was a big influence in her being accepted into the University of Houston law school this fall.
"He has no idea that he has inspired so many people to grow in their love of the law. He knows it so well, yet he is able to portray it to other people in such an easy, understandable and relatable manner. Dr. Polinard makes it so you feel that this is not above you, that you can understand this and you can do this. He makes you feel like you can achieve anything," she said.