Yitzhak Lewis: 2023 DKU Teaching Award Winner

By Mengyu Ma, Learning Experience Designer, DKU Center for Teaching and Learning

Dr. Yitzhak Lewis

Yitzhak Lewis, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University (DKU). He has been teaching world literature and global cultural studies at DKU since 2019. At the end of the 2022-23 academic year, Dr. Lewis was nominated by students and selected by the Undergraduate Dean’s award committee as recipient of the 2023 DKU Teaching Award. This award recognizes the excellence of DKU faculty in teaching undergraduate courses, and Dr. Lewis is the fifth recipient of this annual award.

Dr. Lewis values the opportunity to grow with his students. His classes always include student voices representing different social contexts and perspectives. With his mindful course design and scaffolding, students are empowered to accomplish high-level learning tasks. Below are some student comments about Dr. Lewis’ teaching and his own reflections on them.

Making complexity simple is not magic

Several students mentioned that taking Dr. Lewis’ courses was a great asset to their academic growth because of his talent for making complexity simple:

“Professor Lewis’s expertise was evident in his ability to present complex ideas in a manner that was easy to comprehend, as he offered us insights into the key concepts and themes of the texts covered.”

“Professor Lewis designed the class with an impressive structure that gradually introduced us to vital theories and classics. His structured teaching laid a solid foundation for my future studies in literature and cultural studies.”

Dr. Lewis attributes the magic of simplification to two factors. At DKU, he teaches entry-level courses with students who are very new to the field, as well as senior seminar courses while students are working on their Signature Work projects and post-graduate planning in their fourth year. By teaching the same group of students at different stages of their learning, Dr. Lewis gets to know his students very well. As a result, students’ background knowledge and cognitive development are key considerations in his teaching. The opportunity to grow with students also helps him develop healthy relationships with students. In addition, as the major track coordinator in World Literature, Dr. Lewis is always mindful of the alignment of courses in the major, so that each course is designed in the right place in the curriculum with clear expectations.

With a well-developed syllabus, the second step is effective scaffolding. As an instructor, it is necessary to peel away the layers that complicate knowledge and build steps towards a deeper understanding along the learning process. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Lewis always tells students the workload and expectations of the course – for example, reading one book per week. Before students get anxious, he explains the step-by-step plans, the learning resources that can help, and the learning activities they will undertake together. As a result, students benefit from the clear course structure and are able to develop understanding of complicated knowledge through a guided learning experience.

Dedication to nurturing intellectual curiosity

Another aspect of the student feedback is that they appreciate Dr. Lewis’ contribution to their intellectual growth:

“Prof. Lewis always communicates with his students, seeking their interests and needs, hoping the classes are serving the best interests of the students.”

“The discussion topics and methodologies mentioned in this course serve as very intellectually stimulating prompts to dig into more professional studies in the future.”

Dr. Lewis shared that one of his teaching philosophies is to make the course as relevant to students’ lives as possible, which in turn enhances their intellectual development. “The textbook is always connected to real life, but the goal is to make students see that. Ideally, I hope my students leave the class realizing that every single class they take at DKU is connected to their lives.” To accomplish this, he guides students to analyze contemporary examples within different contexts and cultural backgrounds, which helps them see the relevance of the syllabus for current issues. He also challenges students to find real-world examples themselves and show the rest of the class how they relate to the course content. In addition, interdisciplinary learning at DKU encourages students to make connections between disciplines, which is a great way for students to see the world from a holistic perspective. (See the interdisciplinary course developed by Dr. Lewis and Dr. Robertson, another DKU faculty member, Bridging Biology and Humanities.

Dr. Lewis reflected that his previous language teaching experience drives him to intentionally emphasize the real-world connections in his classes. Before joining DKU, Dr. Lewis taught Hebrew at Columbia University, where he always attempted to create authentic language contexts for learners to practice grammar structures. This experience led him to develop a mindset of looking for real-life examples and paying close attention to learning moments in everyday life. In this way, he encourages students’ intellectual curiosity and makes them aware that what they are learning is reflected in many aspects of their lives.

An educator and mentor

“From the first year, Prof. Lewis has left me a deep impression by his kindness, humor and excellent communication skills… He is still one of my favorite DKU professors after four year’s exploration. I appreciate the chance to be influenced by him and find what I am really dedicated to since the very first semester at DKU.”

“Prof. Lewis is a kind and caring mentor to his students, almost like a father figure to the literature students. He fosters a comfortable class atmosphere that allows students to speak freely and contribute to the literature family.”

Dr. Lewis feels fortunate to have such students at DKU. Good faculty-student relationships are the foundation for a comfortable and inclusive classroom atmosphere, and are built upon love of learning, trust and shared interests. Building healthy relationships with students, even those from other majors, Dr. Lewis also learns a lot from the young learners. “In one of my courses, I assign students to analyze an advertisement from their home country. Their presentations teach me a great deal about local cultures from around the world.” The mutual nature of teaching and learning at DKU strengthens the learning community, which is crucial for both faculty and students.

Advice from Dr. Lewis

Teaching and learning never happens in a vacuum and at DKU that’s even more true, Dr. Lewis observes. The unique curriculum at DKU is interdisciplinary and interconnected. It’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with the structure of the majors and the broader curriculum. Knowing the context of your course and teaching with an eye towards the broader curriculum will create a more fulfilling teaching and learning experience.”