Passionate, dedicated, committed, enthusiastic, brilliant—those are just a few of the terms former students have used to describe Art History department head Craig Zabel and his teaching style. So it is really no surprise that he has been awarded the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence’s 2016 Alumni/Student Award for Excellence in Teaching (previously called the Teaching Fellow Award), recognizing him as a “spokesperson” for outstanding teaching at Penn State.
Zabel, associate professor of art history, joined the Penn State faculty in 1985. Since being named department head in 1998, he has continued to teach every semester. “No matter what else I might achieve in scholarship and service, it is teaching that is at the core of my professional existence,” he wrote in this teaching philosophy statement for the award. “I strive through my actions to communicate to my fellow faculty members the essential importance of teaching, which is sometimes not always the top priority at a research university.”
Zabel teaches courses in architectural history, including Art H 202, “Renaissance to Modern Architecture,” and Art H 415, “The Skyscraper.” Art H 202 is an introductory course that typically has more than 300 students, including architecture and architectural engineering majors who are required to take the course, and other undergraduates who take it to fulfill a General Education requirement. “My greatest thrill as a teacher comes when I bump into a former student—sometimes in a distant city—and the student tells me that my course totally changed their perceptions of cities wherever they travel,” he said.
According to Zabel, architecture is one form of art that engages us everyday, both where we live and where we work. He acknowledges that architecture can be a very abstract art, laden with technical jargon. “I strive to establish the aesthetic, structural, and/or spatial meaning behind this architecture language and attempt to bring these buildings alive. My courses go well beyond the formal considerations of architecture, as the students attempt to examine buildings from the points of view of religion, politics, philosophy, culture, economics, gender, society, technology, engineering, landscape architecture, urban planning, and interior design.”
When Zabel joined the Department of Art History, nearly half of the faculty was concentrated in Renaissance/Baroque. His courses in American and contemporary art and architectural history built new bridges with students in the visual arts, architecture, and architectural engineering. “One of my greatest passions throughout my career has been the teaching of foundational courses and challenging upper-level courses to undergraduates who are aspiring to eventually become practitioners in the arts, either as artists or architects,” he said.
During his tenure as department head, Zabel has led the transformation of the Art History teaching faculty from a European-focused department to one with a global reach. He regularly sits in on Art History classes in order to mentor the teaching of faculty at all levels. In his own teaching, he frequently uses online discussion forums in which students comment on weekly readings. In his 400-level courses, he meets individually with each student to discuss the student’s term paper topic. He is also very active in Art History’s graduate program, and has been the advisor for fourteen completed Ph.D. dissertations at Penn State. Two of his most recent Ph.D. graduates have been awarded Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowships, at Bard College and Occidental College.
Thomas J. Morton, a visiting assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College and one of Zabel’s former students, summed up what many other students have said of Zabel, and why he is deserving of this teaching award: “From that day forward [after hearing Zabel’s first lecture of the semester], I not only wanted to be an architectural historian; I wanted to be Dr. Zabel. He did not simply inspire me; he truly changed my life.”