Alyssa O'Brien wins Phi Beta Kappa's 2006 teaching award by Christine Alfano
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Alyssa O'Brien receives Phi Beta Kappa's 2006 Teaching Award


On Monday, June 12th, Alyssa O’Brien arrived at the faculty club expecting to attend a relatively routine lunch meeting. Little did she realize that she had been lured there under false pretenses.

As the meeting began, Marvin quickly cut to the chase, informing a visibly surprised Alyssa that the meeting had nothing to do with the UAP/URP merger, and that it had, in fact, everything to do with her. At that moment, Susie Brubaker-Cole, Managing Director of the newly merged program, admitted that she was attending the “meeting” under another guise – as the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa – and that Alyssa had won this year’s Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize.

 Alyssa receiving her Phi Beta Kappa award plaque from PBK Secretary, Susie Brubaker-Cole.

The Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize is an award given annually to a Stanford teacher who has demonstrated excellence in her teaching and interaction with undergraduates. What makes this prize unique is that the criteria change from year to year – each spring, the members of Phi Beta Kappa meet to establish the nominating criteria for that year’s award. This year, the members developed the following criteria:

“excellence in teaching in and beyond the classroom demonstrated through the passion to inspire personal and intellectual development. This includes encouraging critical and analytic thinking, taking an active interest in students as individuals, influencing the way students think about the world, and engaging and valuing student ideas and perspectives.”

As Andrea pointed out when asked about the award, it is also unique for its nomination process: "The Phi Beta Kappa Outstanding Teaching Award is one of the most prestigious awards our University gives and one that is determined entirely by students. It is very exciting that the students have chosen Alyssa to receive this award, based on their assessment of her teaching in and out of the classroom."
Nominations are accepted from all members of the senior class, but the recipient is decided upon by the members of Phi Beta Kappa. Alyssa was nominated by her former PWR student, Jonathan Hwang ('06), who had this to say about Alyssa in a speech that he delivered at the official ceremony on Friday, June 15th:

“Besides becoming a better writer, Dr. O’Brien’s class gave me the opportunity to discover one of my passions in life. When choosing a topic [for my research paper], Dr. O’Brien challenged me to write about something that I truly cared about. Following her advice, I chose to analyze a political cartoon depicting the relationship between China and Taiwan in my first writing project. Soon, I was hooked on researching the history and political relationship between China, Taiwan, and the US. Dr. O’Brien encouraged me to pursue the topic further, eventually leading me to write a major research paper on the subject. She continued to challenge me to view the topic from multiple angles from the Chinese, Taiwanese, and American points of view She not only demanded excellent writing from me, but she also wanted a complete, unbiased, and critical analysis of a complex political relationship.

In the end, Dr. O’Brien’s class was not a mere writing class; it was a history and politics class that led me to question and discover my own Taiwanese heritage and identity. I think Dr. O’Brien for giving me the opportunity to find my passion and the guts to pursue work in addition to and outside of my engineering major.”


To anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting Alyssa’s classroom or in talking with her about her pedagogical strategies and her approach to interacting with students, this award should come as no surprise. Marvin summed it up nicely in a recent comment on her award: “It's both gratifying and appropriate that the student who nominated her and the Phi Beta Kappa selection committee have recognized Alyssa's excellence as a writing teacher. She's fully committed to helping her students grow as writers and researchers, expending tremendous effort to guide and inspire them.”

Be sure to visit Alyssa’s office next quarter to see her shiny plaque and to congratulate her on this well-deserved award!

Alyssa with Marvin, Andrea, and Clyde at her award luncheon.