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Lindback Winner Auster Inspires Curiosity

By Chris Karlesky

For Professor of Sociology Carol Auster, Franklin & Marshall’s 2011 Commencement will always hold special meaning. It was announced at the ceremony that Auster was the winner of the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award, the College’s highest honor for teaching.

However, the ceremony was missing one thing—Auster herself. The professor was attending her oldest daughter’s graduation at another institution that day and could not join the festivities at F&M. But she will always cherish what happened that morning.

“At my daughter’s graduation, I began getting text messages from some of the Posse 6 Scholars at F&M,” said Auster, who mentors F&M’s sixth Posse cohort from New York. “They were writing to congratulate me. Those were the first messages I received, and it was very special.”

It was fitting that Auster received her initial congratulations on a teaching award from students, and that those messages arrived by means of technology that did not exist when the professor joined F&M in 1981. The impact of technology on society was one focus of Auster’s Lindback Lecture at Common Hour on March 1 in the Barshinger Center for Musical Arts (click the video above to view highlights of the event).

Auster is the 76th recipient of the Lindback Award at F&M, which is funded by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation. The College announces the award at Commencement, and the recipient delivers a lecture at Common Hour the following academic year.

“So many wonderful teachers have won this award, and it’s an honor to be part of that group of professors,” Auster said. “The Lindback has inspired me to improve even more. It’s an extra motivator.”

Delivering a lecture at Common Hour was a bit out of the ordinary for Auster, whose favorite part of teaching is provoking discussion. “It is rare that I ever lecture for 45 minutes. When I first came to F&M, the teaching style was primarily lecture. But I’ve always liked the exchange that takes place between students. The evolution toward discussion in the classroom has been more to my liking.”

Whatever the teaching style, Auster’s goal is to inspire curiosity in her students. The seeds of her passion for teaching were planted early in life, in her native Canton, N.Y., where both of her parents were college professors.

“My parents are my teacher role models,” Auster said. “We had many conversations around the dinner table about teaching and students.”

Auster’s curiosity has resulted in a diverse range of research projects through the years, many of which the professor said came from unexpected places. Auster took her audience at Common Hour on a journey through her work on gender and technology, from research on female engineers and Disney theme parks to Mother’s and Father’s Day cards and pet cemetery memorial plaques. “I’ve always tried to transform my curiosity into workable research projects,” Auster said.

Auster also values teaching moments outside the classroom. In the 1990s, she was a guest 15 times on WGAL-TV’s 12:30 Live show, providing a sociologist’s take on issues ranging from peer pressure to gender roles in the workplace. She has also had nine letters to the editor published in The New York Times. “I view all of these as opportunities to teach,” she said.

The professor said she is constantly learning from her students. This semester, she is advising a “Directed Reading” course with two students on the impact of technology in society. The project, which Auster calls “unexpected,” explores the impact of technology on relationships, identity, family, work, medicine, and social movements.

Auster is also learning from the Posse Scholars who first congratulated her on receiving the College’s highest teaching honor. Posse identifies students of promise from urban public high schools to form socio-economically diverse teams called “posses.”

“Because of Posse, I’ve been attending all different kinds of activities on campus, including African drumming, a poetry slam and the international fashion show,” she said. “It’s been wonderful to watch the students blossom and contribute to F&M. It’s the close relationship to all of my students that matters most to me.”