Here’s a bet to take. Of all the nation’s 2007 Carnegie Professors of the Year — one from almost every state — Utah State University Professor Lyle McNeal has the most unique “teaching-is-tough” story to tell.
One of McNeal’s recent in-the-field lab experiences mixed one young student, one rowdy 400-pound ram and one much-loved professor’s much-loved nose. It seems the inexperienced student let the ram into a holding pen prematurely, and all McNeal remembers is turning around and seeing 400 pounds of angry, thick-horned ram reared up on its hind legs coming down for a head butt. McNeal’s nose took the blast, it exploded into pieces and off to the emergency room he went with a concussion.
“It wasn’t really the student’s fault,” McNeal said graciously. “That’s what we were there for, to learn and get some experience. I was just glad it was me and not one of the students, and it definitely taught them a lesson about dealing with animals.”
McNeal, an animal science professor in USU’s College of Agriculture, is one of 40 professors from across the nation honored recently (Nov. 15) in Washington, D.C., as a Carnegie Professor of the Year. The awards recognize outstanding professors for their influence on teaching and their outstanding commitment to teaching undergraduate students. This year, there are winners in 40 states and the District of Columbia. USU is home to eight of the last 13 Carnegie Professors of the Year in Utah.
When McNeal says that no two days are alike, he backs the claim up with bruises that are still coming to someone “somewhere over the age of 65.” He’s had Hepatitis B, hantavirus, both shoulders repaired after run-ins with animals, and he’s been accidentally poked with animal vaccine by students. Yes, teaching is a tough business.
“But then I also get things like this,” he said, holding up a card covered with personalized get-well wishes from dozens of students from the class. “When you get something like this two days later, then you know what this teaching business is all about.”
Teaching might be a tough business, but McNeal is a tough teacher with a huge soft spot in his heart for students.
“Professor McNeal is beloved by his students because he doesn’t sacrifice academic rigor for popularity, yet at the same time they know he also is deeply concerned with their personal well being,” said Noelle Cockett, vice president for Extension and Agriculture. “He is absolutely passionate about teaching, and he hasn’t lost one ounce of enthusiasm after all these years in the classroom.”
He gets to work by 6:30 a.m. most days, a time when “only the custodian and I are here — we’re good friends,” he said. He works most Saturdays, a day when he gets to have some one-on-one time, as he puts it, with himself. He has an enormous teaching load — 15 classes over the three semesters, including 12 undergraduate classes. And he has received 19 different awards excellence in teaching and mentoring since he came to USU in 1979.
“No student is a number in his class,” Cockett said. “He respects them all, cares for them all. He never pits students against each other. He asks them to compete against themselves, and he has a way of drawing the best out of each one of them.”
McNeal said he tries to get students focused on action, on “doing” things by raising the expectations they have of themselves.
“As a professor, you don’t give lectures and tests — you give lessons,” he said. “I look at them and I see minds ready to be stimulated, enhanced, enlarged. Sometimes you wonder if you’re getting through, but the gratitude often comes back later when they’re alumni. This relationship doesn’t end at commencement.”
Ann Berghout Austin, USU’s vice provost for faculty development and diversity, said that in addition to his enormous in-class teaching load, it might be impossible to find another professor who spends more time with students either in one-on-one consultation or in group hands-on activities. His field-trip schedule for any typical block of time is intense and goes on almost without break.
“And still ‘Doc’ McNeal has never lost his ebullient enthusiasm for his discipline, his boundless energy and, most importantly, his sincere love for his students,” she said.
His students are his family away from home, McNeal said. “They’re my extended family, and I try to treat them like it.” His young students sometimes are thousands of miles from home, and they need help adjusting. He thinks students learn better in a nurturing classroom environment, not through tactics that include fear and intimidation.
McNeal has a sign on the door of his office that he says sums up his philosophy about his role in teaching. It reads:
“Our students are the most important citizens on campus. They are not dependent on us … we are dependent on them. They are not an outsider in our university … they are part of it. We are not doing them a favor by serving them … they are doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.”
Several of McNeal’s students wrote letters in support of his nominations for the award.
“”Not only did he give his time, he demonstrated a genuine concern for each student’s abilities, desires, limitations and life circumstances,” former student Geoffory Anderson wrote.
Another former student, sheep rancher John Meredith Wilson, wrote: “Dr. Lyle McNeal is the most accessible university professor I have ever known, and I have known many. He cares for people, for livestock, the land and for a way of life. After all, living the walk is the most important part of being a teacher.”
McNeal said it seems to him that higher education is in some ways becoming unbalanced, with the focus narrowing dramatically into specialization areas with less and less room for students to understand the big picture. To address that concern, he is teaching a new class called Sustainable Agriculture Systems with Animals, a class that discusses agro-ecology, alternative agricultural systems, sustainable agriculture and non-monoculture agriculture, among other topics.
“My Navajo family uses a term that means ‘harmony’ or ‘balance’ in life,” said McNeal, who was adopted into a Navajo family and into the tribe in appreciation of his efforts to save the endangered Churro sheep, which had both material and spiritual significance to the Navajo, or the Diné. The project received national attention, including major articles in The Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. “I think it is important to teach students about taking a holistic approach to life,” he said.
In recent years, the children of former students have become his students, and that has been something of a reality check for him. At age 65-plus, most people begin thinking about retirement, perhaps especially people in jobs that leave them with broken body parts. But McNeal doesn’t understand the attraction of retirement.
“Retirement? What’s that? I’m scared of not working,” he said. “I’ve worked full time and supported myself since I was 11. I think I still have something to teach these kids, and they need this ‘transfer of knowledge.’ As long as I can still remember what I know, I’m staying!”
Professor McNeal to be honored on campus …
A public ceremony to honor McNeal as Utah’s Carnegie Professor of the Year is Thursday, Nov. 29, from 3-5 p.m. in USU’s Haight Alumni Center, at approximately 600 N. 800 East on campus. The public is invited.
Former USU Carnegie Professors of the Year are: Bonnie Glass-Coffin, anthropology; Jan Sojka, physics; David Lancy, anthropology; Mark Damen, history; Sonia Manuel-Dupont, English; Ted Alsop, geography and earth resources; and Frances Titchener, history.
The U.S. Professors of the Year Award Program was created in 1981 to increase awareness of the importance of undergraduate instruction at all types of higher education institutions. The program recognizes faculty members for their achievement as undergraduate professors.
Both national and state winners are chosen on the basis of their extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching, determined by excellence in the following four areas: impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students.
Click here to see all Carnegie Professors of the Year.
Contacts: Ann Berghout Austin, 435-797-1527; Maren Cartwright, 435-797-1355
Writer: Tim Vitale, 435-797-1356