WCU’s Cooper named one of UNC system’s best teachers

Chris Cooper, associate professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, has been named one of the best teachers in the University of North Carolina system in recognition of his engaging and dynamic teaching style.

Cooper is among 17 recipients of the 19th annual UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching, announced Tuesday, March 26.

A member of the Board of Governors is scheduled to present Cooper with the award at WCU’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies that begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 11. Cooper also will speak at the Graduate School commencement ceremony Friday, May 10.

A faculty member at WCU since 2002, Cooper regularly wins rave reviews from his students and earns praise from his faculty colleagues as “an engaging professor who is actually energized as a teacher by his interactions with students.”

“Dr. Cooper teaches his students about American politics and public administration, but more importantly, he teaches them to think,” said Richard Starnes, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “He challenges them to think critically, to approach issues analytically and to consider how politics shapes their lives and our world. As his students will testify, his approach to teaching reinforces the value of a liberal arts education in preparing students for their careers and for life.”

Cooper partnered his elections class last semester with a class at Eastern Michigan University. The instructor at Eastern Michigan and Cooper used Skype to virtually visit each other’s classes. Their students worked on a variety of projects together and experienced how the 2012 election played out from the perspective of two different key states.

Students in one of Cooper’s graduate-level policy analysis courses conducted research and wrote articles for Wikipedia as part of an initiative to improve the quality of public policy content on the free online encyclopedia. WCU was one of 21 universities selected to participate nationwide.

Cooper also was instrumental in implementing a new master’s-level capstone experience where students demonstrate their competence in public affairs by working with a community partner to conduct applied research that helps the partner. His students have provided a study of downtown parking in the town of Sylva, did an analysis of various options for creating government in WCU’s home community of Cullowhee, and investigated how a local nonprofit board could be restructured.

As an active researcher, Cooper has written numerous articles, including editorial columns for newspapers across the state, and has made many appearances on local TV and radio stations because of his expertise on political issues. He involves his students in research projects, and 10 of his students have been chosen to present at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research over the past few years. He also has co-authored several papers and newspaper articles with students.

One of his students said that Cooper “challenges the way we think,” while another said that he motivates them “to strive for exceptionally high standards,” and teaches them the ability to “learn from other students” and “look at topics from a different perspective.” One student said Cooper “allows students to succeed in ways they never imagined.”

Cooper was the 2011 winner of WCU’s Distinguished Scholar Award and a 2007 winner of the university Chancellor’s Award for Engaged Teaching.

He and his former WCU faculty colleague Gibbs Knotts, now chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston, are co-editors of “The New Politics of North Carolina,” published in 2008.

Cooper and the other recipients of the UNC honor, representing an array of academic disciplines, were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Personnel and Tenure, chaired by John C. Fennebresque of Charlotte.

Established by the Board of Governors in April 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institutions at least seven years. No one may receive the award more than once.

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper