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Alumna chosen as one of the nation’s best professors

Lake Superior College sociology instructor Marlise Riffel ’73, M.S. ’79, was named the 2009 Minnesota Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

The two entities partner to offer the U.S. Professors of the Year awards. Riffel was one of only 38 faculty selected from hundreds of individuals nominated last year by colleges and universities throughout the country. The award is the only national initiative specifically designed to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

Riffel began teaching at Rochester Community College in 1983 after working for 10 years in the human services field. She taught evening and weekend community-focused classes for the sociology department specifically so that she could work with nontraditional students.

The college staff named her Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year in 1991. That same year she joined what is now Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minnesota. During her 26 years of teaching, she has taught 16 different undergraduate courses, connecting with 160 students each semester.

“I absolutely love sociology, and there is nothing I’d rather do than teach. My job is to create a desire to know and then to facilitate the development of students’ skills in finding out,” said Riffel, who pioneered the use of computers in sociology classrooms at Lake Superior to teach students research skills.

She and her Lake Superior colleagues eventually designed a “soc lab” with moveable tables and chairs for group work surrounded by computers for each student along the classroom walls. Such flexibility in the classroom is crucial to Riffel, who uses a variety of formats that include face-to-face teaching in the classroom to online learning to a hybrid/blended course.

The combination helps Riffel achieve her goal, which is to “make the sociological perspective contagious.” She does just that by teaching with a zeal that engages her students and enriches their critical thinking.

“A good teacher is in love with her subject,” Riffel said. “She models for students how to wonder, how to struggle with conflicting data or polarized attitudes, how to settle for more questions than answers.”

Riffel consequently motivates students to ask the questions of how and why. “Students can always look up what, where, who, and when,” she said, “but they are invited to think and process with questions of how and why.”

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