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Professor Embraces 'Uncomfortable' in Learning

A colleague at another college once remarked to Jennifer Morford that lecturing on the same subject all the time "really wears you down," but the professor, who for 19 years has taught chemistry at Franklin & Marshall College, did not see it that way.

"I actually love it," said this year's recipient of the Christian R. and Mary E. Lindback Foundation Award for distinguished teaching.

Morford, who grew up on a college campus where her father worked in maintenance, explained her passion for teaching and mentoring:

"When you are doing it for such a long period of time, every year you get to think about 'What's a new way I can talk about this? What's a new example? What's a new way I can help somebody visualize something? What's a new way I can spin a new practice problem or a new in-class example?' Those years go by in a blink of an eye, but they're really helpful to work your craft."

As the citation awarded her this year read, in part, "Professor Morford's research laboratory is as much a space for excellent teaching and mentoring as it is for uncovering impactful new insights into the connections between oceanography and chemistry."

Morford "skillfully mentors" undergraduate researchers — 39 in her career at F&M — "across a variety of complex, cross-disciplinary projects involving meticulous laboratory and field work, while maintaining close relationships with all of her students," the citation read.

One of her colleagues in the department, Professor of Chemistry Kate Plass, said, "Even in very mathematically focused and work-intensive courses, students recognize the values of her teaching. Students are often in Jen's office for discussions that go well beyond chemistry."

One student described Morford's guidance as "everything from how to change the argon tank for the glove bag and what classes to take next semester to how to make the best homemade bagels."

In the laboratory, Morford says she guides her students by assuring them that she understands their initial discomfort and sharing with them how she, herself, experiences those same feelings when she takes on a new endeavor.

"I understand they're going to be uncomfortable when they join the lab for the first time, that they have to learn new things, that they're going to put themselves in different spaces," Morford said. "I'm just as willing to do that."

The professor cites two examples: "I've been involved in two projects that were related to things that I had done but were going to take me into totally new areas, and it's great to be able to share that with my students; to tell them, 'I'm uncomfortable,'" she said. "I'm having to do a lot more reading than I usually do on this. I'm having to be more the student than the mentor."

When tackling new research projects that invariably empower her students' learning, Morford said she asks students, "'Are you willing to collaborate with me on this because I'm not always going to have the answer on how to do this? We're going to walk this together and I'm kind of nervous about how it's going to turn out. And you can be nervous, too, and that's the excitement of what we're going to do.'"

Morford, who each summer spends time thinking about how she intends to teach her classes in the new academic year, said of doing the uncomfortable, "That's what keeps you fresh as a teacher. That's what keeps you on your game, and it keeps you relating to students."

"It's uncomfortable to learn," she said. "Your brain is a muscle and to exercise it, it gets hot and it gets sweaty and it protests. You would rather do the easy and I'm asking you to do something harder. That's how we grow."

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