Excellence in teaching

The first thing you might notice about Sean Sutton is his accent. Sutton not only happens to be a native Australian teaching U.S. politics in the College of Liberal Arts, he's also the recipient of the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

For a man who never wanted to be a teacher growing up, the award is another chapter of an interesting life spanning two continents and half the globe.

"I wanted to be a bookbinder, or maybe a stockbroker," he says. "But as is often the case, I ran into a teacher I admired and got hooked."

Politics always fascinated Sutton, and in order to pursue a newfound interest in teaching, he decided to continue his education in the United States. American politics, he quickly found, was more complicated than he expected.

"There was quite a bit of learning involved. Often, the teacher would make a statement and assume everyone knew what he was talking about. I didn't," says Sutton.

As his studies progressed, Sutton found he did have an advantage over his American peers—a fresh perspective. He found documents like the Declaration of Independence to be "new, interesting and wonderful." With time and study, Sutton soon surpassed his classmates. In class discussion, his professors would challenge his classmates, asking "Is there an American here who can answer?"

Sutton describes his teaching style as "serious playfulness." Every class is punctuated by at least one good laugh. He quickly identifies adaptability and participation as two founding principles that guide his teaching. Sutton combines dialectic and lecture with interesting and relevant reading material outside of class.

"If you give students interesting, good stuff, they open right up," Sutton says.

He also tries to draw students into classroom debates.

"You have to be able to think things through for yourself, to think on the fly," he says.

A tactic of Sutton's is simply pointing to students and asking them to explain their position on an issue.

Colleagues of Sutton have high praise for his teaching abilities.

"Professor Sutton adapts to the students in his classes and stretches them to new levels of performance beyond what they thought they could do," says John Murley, professor and chair of the political science department, "Thirty years from now he will be a legend at RIT for the quality of his classes."

Sutton's academic pursuits include work on a critique of Rational Choice theory, titled, "A Wealth of Notions: the Poverty of Rational Choice," which he hopes to publish soon. This summer, he plans to edit a collection of essays on the politics of William Shakespeare. Modern political scientists, he believes, could learn much from study of the Bard.

Outside the classroom, Sutton enjoys a good game of chess, though he humbly admits he has "no talent at all."

"It's terrible really, I've played all my life and I love something I'll never be good at."

Even after consulting several manuals on strategies to improve his game, he fails to see any results.

"My excuse is that I've never devoted the necessary time, but that just hides a lack of talent," he says.

RIT News & Events, May 13, 2004