TACOMA, Wash. – In his office Mike Veseth '72 keeps a large bucket of vividly-colored juggling balls. “I started juggling, because I didn’t want to forget what it is like to do something for the first time and to have to struggle to get it right,” the University of Puget Sound professor says.
After 35 years of teaching and developing what a colleague describes as “an unbelievable mastery” of his academic field, Veseth did not want to lose touch with the inevitable frustrations of being a student. And so he juggles—badly by his own account—and learns how to learn, so he can pass along a passion for learning to his students.
This is how Mike Veseth, the Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy, came to be honored with the prestigious 2010 Washington State Professor of the Year award, sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Veseth will attend a Washington, D.C., award ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 18. He is the sixth Puget Sound professor to secure the title, adding further to Puget Sound’s record of being recognized with the honor more often than any other college or university in Washington state.
“Mike Veseth is a teacher for a lifetime and a person who wears his greatness with the grace of Baryshnikov, without a trace of the prima donna,” said Puget Sound President Ronald R. Thomas. “From the beginning of his teaching career to this day, from his first book on the debt crisis in Victorian England to his most recent volume critiquing globalization, Mike sees the big picture and encourages his students to do the same. As an international political economist who knows the importance of wise investments, Mike invests generously in all his students, and the life-time return is impressive indeed.”
Veseth’s students attest to this. “Mike changed my life,” wrote more than one former student in testimonies. “I was a prickly, argumentative, and contrary student,” wrote Kirsten Benites ’03, from London. “Regardless of whether he personally believed my arguments, he taught me how to defend my position in a logical way.”
Theater artist Seema Sueko ’94 said that, at first, the professor’s notoriety “intimidated me.” But once Veseth offered the shy student guidance and opportunities, he “transformed me, gave me a voice … and laid the foundation for me to excel.”
Veseth became an excellent teacher by remaining forever a student. He learned what methods of teaching resonated with his students and adopted them. When a changing world demanded a new class, he created it; when the class required interdisciplinary knowledge, he recruited the faculty for it; when a textbook did not exist, he co-wrote it; when the text was adopted by 100 other colleges, he and his colleagues used the funds to support student research.
Urban legends trail Veseth. In earlier days he put elements of the economy’s national income accounts to verse, provided keyboard music, and encouraged students to dance the “gross domestic polka,” while the class sang along. He currently teaches a class called The Beautiful Game where students study racism, sexism, class conflict, nationalism, commercialization, and globalization through soccer.
There is always a long waiting list for his course on The Idea of Wine, which examines the cultural contradictions of post-industrial society using a wine glass as its lens. For seniors preparing to tackle their first thesis, Veseth prescribes a session of juggling the infamous colored balls, so that the students are armed with the humility and determination needed for the uphill climb.
A colleague has remarked on the number of students who pass in and out of Veseth’s office. “I try to get to know the students’ personal interests,” Veseth explains. “So even if it’s an abstract subject, I can find a link that relates to something they care about.”
Veseth demands the best, and his students respond. Aaron Ausland ’96 writes about “miserably throwing away” a graduate school application essay after being told by Veseth it was “not his best work.” The revised essay gained Ausland admission to Harvard Kennedy School, where he wrote an award-winning master’s thesis that propelled him to his current position at the global anti-poverty agency, World Vision.
“I sit here with a pile of letters received from Kathmandu to London, from members of Classes of 1993 through 2011,” wrote Kristine Bartanen, Puget Sound academic vice president and dean, in her letter of nomination. “All of them found the inspiration for actualizing their lives of service to the global community as a student in Mike’s classroom. You can see that being an outstanding teacher is not just what Mike does, it’s who he is.”
Michael Veseth, co-founder of the first undergraduate program in international political economy, has written, edited, and co-authored more than a dozen books including Mountains of Debt; Globaloney (named a Library Journal best business book of 2005); Globaloney 2.0: The Crash of 2008, and the Future of Globalization; and Wine Wars (forthcoming 2011). A Puget Sound professor since 1975, Veseth has held visiting posts with the American Institute on Political and Economic Systems in Prague and Johns Hopkins University’s The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. He is a graduate of Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash., and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Puget Sound and Purdue University.
CASE and the Carnegie Foundation have been partners in offering the U.S. Professors of the Year awards program since 1981. TIAA-CREF, a leading financial services organization, is the principal sponsor for the awards luncheon. Additional support is received from a number of higher education associations, including Phi Beta Kappa, which sponsors an evening congressional reception.
The U.S. Professors of the Year program salutes the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country—those who excel as teachers and influence the lives and careers of their students. Nominees for the award are selected by their own institution and are judged by two separate panels of education experts and professionals on the basis of criteria including their impact on students, scholarly approach to teaching, and contribution to education in the institution, community, and profession.
Press-quality photos of Mike Veseth can be downloaded from: www.pugetsound.edu/pressphotos.xml
U.S. Professors of the Year Awards: www.case.org/poyhome.html
The News Tribune story about Michael Veseth: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/11/18/1429330/tacoma-kid-now-states-professor.html
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