University of Wisconsin-River Falls

News Source

Sept. 12, 2003


UW-RF's Cowen Cited by Regents for Teaching Excellence

One of UW-River Falls' most accomplished teachers has been cited for teaching excellence by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Economics Professor Janna Cowen has been selected as a recipient of the Regents Teaching Excellence Award and was recognized at the September Regents meeting recently held in Madison.

This award recognizes outstanding career achievements by individuals and an exceptional commitment to teaching. Nominees undergo a rigorous campus selection process, which includes support from students. Regents award winners are selected from among the more than 12,000 faculty in the University of Wisconsin System.

Cowen, a UW-RF faculty member since 1979, said she was encouraged by the award as a recognition that her commitment to teaching and advising students remains strong, and that it is appreciated by the students and alumni who nominated her.

She added, "We have many, many faculty on this campus who deserve this award. I'm honored to have been the person who was selected."

Cowen previously was cited at UW-RF as its Distinguished Teacher, the highest award that can be presented at the University.

Chancellor Ann Lydecker said that Cowen's contributions to the University and her impact on her students made her an obvious choice for the Regents award.

"Janna has had a tremendous impact on the hearts and minds of literally thousands of UW-RF students and alumni. Her commitment to students is evident in everything she does—her teaching, her advising, her committee work, and her service to this University. She is most deserving of this statewide award, which acknowledges her exceptional talent, expertise and effectiveness in teaching and advising."

Among the many letters of support for Cowen were those from her faculty colleagues, currently enrolled students as well as alumni.

Students and alumni particularly cited Cowen's teaching acumen and her obvious concern for students. They noted the clarity of her presentation of complex economic matters, her open-door policy of advising and mentoring students, her penchant for quickly learning the names of her students, and her familiarity with their collegiate experiences when she would meet with them many years after they graduated.

One former student who took several classes from Cowen also worked as a student assistant in the economics department and was president of the economics club. She noted, "Professor Cowen showed concern for the students who were having trouble understanding economics. I feel the students knew that she was interested in their welfare and that she would help them whenever she was needed."

Another alumnus, who is now a successful business leader, recalled how Cowen pushed him intellectually while encouraging him to succeed in her class when he was considering dropping out.

"I finished that class with a B and I am still proud of that grade," he wrote. "It was not the only time I was challenged by an instructor, but I can honestly say that it was the longest and most sustained challenge I had in my college experience." He added that Cowen still ranks as the best professor he ever had.

College of Business & Economics Dean Barbara Nemecek noted that in her several years at UW-RF she has quickly learned that Cowen is one of the most accomplished teachers on campus.

"I meet students and they want to sign up for her classes because they know they will accomplish much; students complete her classes and talk about how they were able to reach academically much higher than they had ever expected; and each alumni asks how Dr. Cowen is, and then relay some story of her outstanding skills as a teacher, and how she made a positive difference in their life."

With 24 years in the classroom, Cowen says she is still happy with her choice to be a teaching economist at an institution like UW-RF that emphasizes classroom instruction rather than being a research economist who teaches at a research university.

She says the opportunity to work closely with students means a lot to her. Citing a recent basic economics class she taught to undergraduates she noted that she found them "to be very decent young people with significant ability who are serious about getting an education."

"That has been consistent over the years," Cowen adds.

Cowen teaches a wide range of courses, from freshmen general economics and senior capstone courses to teaching courses within the discipline for economics majors, such as quantitative analysis, labor economics, intermediate microeconomic theory, and public regulation of business.

For non-majors, Cowen says her goal is to have them think logically about economics issues as they relate to society, drawing on such current topics as the Microsoft antitrust legal case, minimum wages, unemployment rates or worker health care. Her students are expected to grasp the theories of limited resources and opportunity costs, as well as the laws of supply and demand.

Cowen says students are often startled by the data. But she explains that she does not espouse a philosophy or viewpoint of how to interpret it. Instead, she expects her students to engage in fact-based discussions in which they are encouraged to respect varying interpretations. She said her goal is to have students avoid the current "dreadful tendency" in society, particularly in talk-radio and shock television, to be opinionated without facts. "I think that's simply disastrous to a democracy," she says.

When teaching economics majors, Cowen says she emphasizes their need to analyze complicated problems. The science, she says, requires clear and logical thinkers who can look at the assumptions that underlie various economic theories and then draw conclusions that are consistent with the theories.

The Regents award winner said her most consistent strength in the classroom over the years has been her ability to be clear on complicated issues by dissecting them and then reassembling them in a clear manner.

"I try to be organized," she says. "If I have a talent in teaching, it's that I am able to make things understandable by being coherent in how I present that information."

Cowen is the second UW-RF faculty member to receive this prestigious award. English Professor Nick Karolides, a specialist in literary censorship and an expert in reading comprehension, was recognized by the Regents in 1994.

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