Professor Richard Ellis has written or co-edited 13 books and numerous journal articles on the American presidency and American political culture, and he’s frequently quoted in national and regional media for his expertise. But if you ask him to discuss his research, he would rather steer the conversation towards teaching.
“You can learn so much about how to teach from people who are willing to talk about their teaching, about what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount from watching and talking with my colleagues at Willamette.”
Ellis’ successful classroom style and dedication to students recently garnered him the prestigious 2008 Oregon Professor of the Year Award.“I feel honored to be in the same category as the other outstanding Willamette professors who have received this award,” Ellis says. “The award is an affirmation for me that it’s possible to be both a good scholar and a good teacher.”
Ellis has already received quite a bit of attention for his scholarship. To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance was featured on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” and received the Langum Prize in Legal History. His latest, Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George W. Bush, came out during the height of election season and had reporters nationwide calling to discuss the history of presidents on the road.
His research and publishing record already won him 2007 Oregon Outstanding Researcher of the Year from the Oregon Academy of Science, an award usually given to a researcher in the hard sciences.
“It is a rare undergraduate professor who has done so much to introduce his or her students to the joys and rigors of research.”
But Ellis’ students and colleagues will tell you his great teaching and willingness to mentor others are equally deserving of recognition. Alexis Walker ’06 says Ellis “has gone out of his way to be there for me and countless other students, not because he has to, but because he genuinely cares.
“It’s a running joke among his students about how quickly he responds to email, almost as if he can telepathically sense he has a message in his inbox,” she says. “I am embarrassed to admit I never knew Professor Ellis’ office hours because he was always available and kept his door open, inviting students in.”
Walker is one of many students who worked one on one with Ellis to assist with his scholarly work while simultaneously learning how to write and research. “In the acknowledgement pages of five books, Ellis thanks 33 different Willamette undergraduates who worked as research assistants on those projects,” College of Liberal Arts Dean Carol Long says. “It is a rare undergraduate professor who has done so much to introduce his or her students to the joys and rigors of research.”
Ellis’ commitment to personal attention originates in his teaching philosophy, one he has developed during his 18 years at Willamette. “When I first arrived, I believed that my mission was to convey the subject matter I had mastered in graduate school,” he says. “I now believe the most enduring contribution I can make to the education and lives of my students is to teach them to think critically and to write clearly.
“The teaching of writing is the centerpiece of my work as a teacher. It is why I ultimately elected to remain at a small liberal arts college, for only in small classes can I devote the intensive, individualized attention that is necessary to instill in students an appreciation for clear and concise prose.”