Hoover senior fellow Haber awarded prestigious Hughes Prize for excellence in teaching

Monday, October 28, 2013
Stephen Haber is the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institutio
Stephen Haber is the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institutio

Hoover senior fellow Stephen Haber was recently awarded the Jonathan Hughes Prize for excellence in teaching economic history from the Economic History Association. Nominated by his former graduate students, he is the first Stanford professor and the second Hoover fellow to win the honor (the other Hoover fellow is Nobel laureate Douglass North, who won the inaugural prize in 1994).

Haber is already decorated with teaching awards, having been awarded every teaching prize Stanford has to offer, including the highest teaching honor, the Walter J. Gores Award, in 2011. Victor Menaldo, a former student who is now a professor at the University of Washington, credits Haber with his success, writing, in an e-mail to Hoover, “it is not an exaggeration to say that Professor Haber’s superb teaching, hands-on mentorship, and unwavering friendship helped propel me forward. . . . I attribute much of my current success to his support and trust in my abilities and potential. Had I not met Steve, I would not be where I am today.” “His focus on logical and empirical rigor, emphasis on commonsense relevance, and rejection of obscurantism of all types sets students up for success as research scholars,” added William Summerhill, another former student who is now a professor at UCLA.

Menaldo and Summerhill are not alone. Haber has helped numerous students excel in their careers, with their current faculty affiliations spanning some of the most respected institutions in the United States, including Harvard, Georgetown, UCLA, Notre Dame, Rice University, University of Washington, University of Illinois, and Indiana University. But, as is evident in the testimonies of his former graduate students, Haber’s teaching reaches beyond job placement.

Haber pushes his students to become the best possible scholars they can be through his engaging teaching style. Aldo Musacchio, one of Haber’s former students and now a professor at the Harvard Business School, writes, “he never just lectures, he asks questions. Even his own answers to his questions are usually phrased as testable hypotheses, just to see if an intrepid student would want to challenge him. Ever sentence, every slide, every pause in his class is carefully thought to get students to think, question, challenge.” He also takes time to strengthen his students’ fundamentals, as Marcelo Bucheli, a former student who is now a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, testified: "During my graduate years, Professor Haber helped me to completely reshape the way I expressed my thoughts and developed my arguments in writing. This was a major change considering I had been trained in a completely different academic tradition and in another language. This type of training is what allowed me to succeed in the American academic environment."

This attention to students extends to the undergraduate students as well, explained Matthew Carnes, a former undergraduate and then graduate student of Haber who is now a professor at Georgetown. “I first came to know Professor Haber when I was a sophomore at Stanford. The most formative of my courses with him was a doctoral research seminar, in which I was the only undergraduate among several advanced graduate students. It was my first experience of the research process in action, and it shaped my sense of what the shared task scholarship can and should do.” Armando Razo, another former student, now a professor at Indiana University, offered a perspective of Haber’s teaching outside the classroom. “I was fortunate to have worked for Steve for several years as I learned the trade of economic history not in a lecture hall but working together transcribing archival data, estimating statistical models, and interpreting results in a truly collaborative fashion. That practical approach of encouraging 'learning by doing' coupled with continuous support for his students distinguish him as a teacher.”

Josiah Ober, the former chairman of political science and professor of classics at Stanford University, describes Haber as a “legendary teacher.” “He shows his students what constitutes good method and bad method. . . they push themselves beyond their ordinary comfort zones and learn much more than they do in less demanding courses.” Haber accomplishes this by building strong relationships with his students. “Steve’s students are devoted to him–they understand how precious it is to have the full attention and mentorship of a first-class researcher as a guide and mentor,” Ober added.

These strong relationships extend beyond the classroom. “Over the years, he has been a supportive colleague and caring friend. From the time that I arrived at Stanford, more than fifteen years ago, through graduation, and until now, Professor Haber has generously supported my endeavors, providing me with advice, while sharing his perspectives and intellectually rigorous approach to history as social science,” wrote Moramay López-Alonso, a professor at Rice University. Another former student, Nikki Valesco Asbeck, who now teaches at Bentley University, wrote, “So much of who I am as a person (and not only as a scholar) is written in Steve’s handwriting. Just being around Steve and being exposed to his example has taught me valuable lessons that shape my everyday decisions.” Naturally, these relationships have a positive impact on his classes as well, wrote Gustavo Del Angel, a former student and now a professor at Centro de investigacion y docencia economicas in Mexico, in an email to Hoover. “He has a strong commitment with his students that goes beyond the classroom. This is a virtue that contributes to the creation of an intellectual community among his students.”

Such testimonies made a strong impression on the Hughes Prize committee at the Economic History Association. “Stephen Haber’s students’ letters showed that he had been essential to their development at an intellectual level and also a personal level,” wrote Christopher Hanes, the chairman of the prize committee. “They just love the guy. They wrote about how he had taught them things that made them better people, not just better scholars. You don’t hear things like that every day.”