"Hard Teacher" named Teacher of the Year at Fairfield University


Robbin CrabtreeDreams of a career working for National Public Radio in Central America were cut short when Robbin Crabtree was studying for her master's degree and Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. While teaching radio production as a teaching assistant, she says, "I fell in love with teaching and never looked back."

Her students, who have helped to elect her Teacher of the Year at Fairfield University would consider that a great stroke of luck for them. While most would call her a "hard teacher," communication major and Phi Beta Kappa senior Jeff Michaud of Spring Hill, Tenn., says she is "the all-around best teacher I have ever encountered in my academic career." She brings, he says, "an unparalleled level of knowledge, enthusiasm, and passion to her profession, and she compels students to strive beyond what they think is possible."

Christina M. Tesauro, a major in communication and media studies from Islip, N.Y., would even go so far as to recommend that taking a course with Dr. Crabtree should be a core requirement. "Her intelligence, integrity and understanding made such an impression on me and I believe all students would benefit greatly from the experience of taking one of her courses.

The Teacher of the Year Award is an honor bestowed by Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society, which solicits student nominations based on a professor's effectiveness in the classroom, availability outside the classroom and contact with student groups. The award was presented to Dr. Crabtree yesterday at the annual Senior Brunch.

Dr. Crabtree came to Fairfield six years ago as part of a teaching duo. Her husband, David Sapp, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English. They were looking for teaching assignments that would be within a manageable distance. They had both been involved in public education, but in looking at schools like Loyola Chicago and Marquette and their missions, "I became fixated on Jesuit education," she says. They are both interested in social justice and when Fairfield worked out for them it was the perfect fit. "Everything I wanted to put my energy into is central to the university," says Dr. Crabtree.

Now in her sixth year as chair of the Department of Communication, Dr. Crabtree this year took on the added responsibility of serving as the first director of Service Learning. Housed within the Center for Faith and Public Life, the Office of Service Learning develops connections between rigorous academic learning and service that addresses the needs of the community. "We are committed to solidarity and collaboration with our surrounding communities in a way that builds on the assets we all bring to cooperative learning and problem-solving," said Dr. Crabtree. The work flows from the Jesuit Catholic educational mission that calls for the dynamic integration of academic excellence, social responsibility and faith that promotes justice.

Dr. Crabtree has been involved in Fairfield's partnership with Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua, which provides opportunities for scholarly collaborations, service learning, faculty/student exchanges and curricular projects. She had been working in Nicaragua since 1987, related to her research, and also leading educational and service trips for a non-government organization called "Bridges to Community," with which she also led trips to Kenya three times.

Through it all, Dr. Crabtree keeps up with her own homework, publishing extensively, some in collaboration with Dr. Sapp. A paper she co-authored with another colleague on "Crossing Borders in Health Communication Research," received top paper honors from the Health Communication Interest Group of the Western States Communication Association in 2006. Her ability to multi-task and be efficient is a talent, she says, that comes from her mom.

She was brought to Fairfield to head the Department of Communication and during her six-year tenure has nearly doubled the size of the department. In many ways, the position puts her again in a teaching role. "To provide an environment in which young faculty can thrive - and mine are fantastic," is what makes her work so satisfying, she says. But in the end, the thing that makes the hard work of teaching so rewarding is the reaction of her students. She loves to hear that a student who thought she was really intimidating at first and a tough grader returns for a second or third course because of the passion, knowledge and dedication she brings to the classroom - and beyond.

A student who nominated her for the Teacher of the Year Award wrote, "She seems hard to many outsiders but once you take her class you understand that she is hard, but only because she wants her students to feel accomplished and get them to do better in the communication field. Even though she is the Communication Chair she always has time for her students no matter how small the problem ... She could talk for hours about any subject and not just communication. She has the biggest depth of knowledge I have ever come across and I feel I have learned more from her than all of the other teachers I have had combined."

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on May 17, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 223