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The Indispensable Man

Dr. Kent RhodesDr. Kent Rhodes

English professor Dorothy McGavran remembers the day Kent Rhodes explained a scientific principle to a freshman class gathered in Dana Auditorium. The popular biology professor called students on stage as he set up weights on a pendulum. He was about to illustrate simple harmonic motion. If the pendulum swung as predicted, no one would be hit.

"The students were to stand still and trust the pendulum to stop where the scientific principle said it would," McGavran recalls. They did and it did. It was an unforgettable experience and a compelling example of why she nominated Rhodes for the Hunter Hamilton Love of Teaching Award: "He is an expert in interactive and interdisciplinary teaching techniques, and he cares about reaching all of his students."

Rhodes was named the 2013 recipient of the award at Queens' undergraduate commencement on May 4. Selected by a committee of his peers, he exemplifies the award's criteria as a teacher who inspires student potential and who demonstrates an extraordinary love of teaching. Funded by a gift made by family members in honor of Buford and Frances Hamilton, the cash award is split between the recipient and an academic department or program selected by the recipient.

Kent Rhodes arrived at Queens in 1992 with nearly two decades of university teaching to his credit. After earning a PhD in developmental biology from Emory University in 1974, he had channeled his formidable intellect into teaching.

If anything stands out in the nominations that poured in from students, alumni and colleagues, it is his capacity for making science relevant while expecting top performance from students. Leslie Pitman '11 confessed that the B she earned in the biology for non-majors course-the only B of her college career-was a price she gladly paid. "It was worth every GPA point that I might have lost. For the first time since middle school, I actually learned something about biology." An English major, she is now in a master's of education program at the University of South Carolina, a career path directly influenced by Rhodes.

"His love of teaching is contagious and it is largely because of his influence that I will be entering the field of higher education. I hope to one day inspire other students the way Dr. Rhodes has inspired me."  

The professor's high standards have given him a reputation as a tough teacher who expects the best, yet his compassion has enabled him to find ways to reach and inspire ordinary students. In an age dominated by technology, his approach is balanced, says Patricia Koplas, chair of the biology department.  

"He demonstrates to students and the rest of the Queens community that you can be an excellent scientist while looking to our ancient tradition for guidance on how to live the examined life."

Rhodes-who often bikes to work in a plaid shirt, jeans and tennis shoes-has done a lot more than teach biology and advise pre-med students. Bob Whalen, chair of the selection committee, has known Rhodes for years and ticks off a list of his achievements with ease.

"He's a scientist, yet he can walk into a classroom and teach The Illiad or the Bible. He's always been very creative in the international program, preparing students before trips and then leading trips. He can teach about Rome; he can teach about Australia, and he can also take them there," he says.

Pausing to consider the breadth of Rhodes' influence, Whalen, a professor of European and American history, says, "There's a book about George Washington, The Indispensable Man. Kent is our indispensable man."

-Laurie Prince

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