Friday, October 27, 2006

University Scholar Teaches Students to Challenge Their Own Assumptions

By Christine Magbanua

Lynn Fisher could have been a professor of English literature. But while in college, her love of hands-on research steered her away from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and onto a different path.

“I still love to read. Reading novels could be described as my hobby,” she says. “But I got really fascinated with the fieldwork aspect of anthropology and working in the lab and working with materials as part of my research.”

Now Fisher is an associate professor of Anthropology at UIS, and also serves as an adjunct research associate with the Illinois State Museum.

Fisher came to UIS in 2000 from Oberlin College, where she had been a visiting instructor. She earned a B.A. in anthropology at Oberlin and an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"The things that brought me to UIS were its liberal arts focus, small size, and close contact with students,” she says. “Yet it’s also a place where I can really pursue my research interests.”

Currently Fisher is helping investigate the economy and society of the earliest farmers in central Europe, particularly how farming spread across the region. The project brings German and American scholars together from different backgrounds and focuses.

“It’s the most fun and exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” Fisher says. “I love the team that is collaborating on the project and the questions we are working on answering.”

Fisher says that although the history of how farming practices spread across Europe is well-documented in many areas, it nevertheless holds a lot of surprises for those interested in the human past.

“It has the potential to answer some questions about how these early farmers used the landscape and about what their economic systems were like,” she says. “Some of these are questions that we’ve have had for a long time. We’re adding a new perspective, a new kind of data to that question, so I hope that will be an important contribution.”

Fisher’s accomplishments are many – in publications (peer reviewed articles in leading journals, chapters in books, an edited volume) and awards (a Fulbright Foundation Senior Research and Teaching Award, and the University of Tübingen’s prize for ice age research).

And her contributions are not going unnoticed. She was recently named University Scholar for 2006-2007. She is one of 16 faculty members, and the only one from UIS, chosen for the award, which honors outstanding teachers and scholars at the three U of I campuses.

Fisher said she was very excited when she heard she had won the award.

“I was nominated last spring by two colleagues for whom I have an enormous amount of respect,” she says. “It was a great honor.”

Margot Duley, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was one of those who helped to nominate Fisher. She says that to be named a University Scholar, one must have outstanding accomplishments both as a teacher and a scholar. She says Fisher meets the highest standards in both categories.

“Not only is she skilled in the traditional classroom,” Duley says, “she has also developed field placements and field trips in both Illinois and Germany to bring archaeology alive to students.”

In addition to the honor of being recognized by their peers, University Scholars receive $10,000 a year for three years to support research and other scholarly activities.

Before she learned she’d been named a University Scholar, Fisher had been finishing up negotiations for a grant budget where she had been forced to cut a few things from her list.

“Right after that was completed, I got the word about the University Scholar award and I thought ‘Oh thank goodness, now I can restore the student worker that I really wanted to have.’”

Fisher has developed a program that sends students to Germany for three-and-a-half weeks to become trained in archeological field methods. She says she loves taking students with her to Germany, since most of them have never been abroad. For them, the trip is a new and exciting experience.

“To travel for archaeology instead of as a tourist is very unique,” she says. “To stay in one area, to be doing productive work, and to be working with people from that region just gives you a much closer view of what it would be like to live there. It’s very different from whizzing through on a seven-country tour.”

Back in the classroom, Fisher says the most productive and exciting part is getting students interested in investigating their own questions.

"I’m a social scientist, I’m very curiosity-driven in my own work,” she says. “And I want students to experience that—the excitement of coming up with a question that interests you for your own reasons, based on your own background, experiences, and training, and trying to figure out how you could learn more, how you could answer your own questions.”

““The thing that I value the most highly in the education experience is learning critical thinking,” she says. “How to challenge your own assumptions as you formulate your plans and your questions and then how to really look out into the world and find some evidence or other perspectives that can challenge your preconceived notions.”

Fisher said she has been able to develop strong, productive, and personally satisfying connections with faculty in several programs at UIS. She says the university has also shown great support for her archaeological work.

“I have found tremendous support for combining teaching and field research and a lot of travel in a way that has been enormously productive,” Fisher says. “So these have been, so far, the six most productive and exciting years of my life.”

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