AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

President's Commentaryundefined

Harvey S. Leff
May 15, 2007

For She's a Jolly Good Fellow, or What?

When I was a young faculty member, I recall reading now and then that someone was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Wow, I thought, this must be quite an honor, given its connection to royalty. Yet, the word "fellow" seemed weird in this context because it most commonly refers to a male. Surely, many women qualify for these awards, so the term fellow has always bugged me.

Later I learned that other organizations, such as the American Physical Society (APS), the Optical Society of America (OSA), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) elect Fellows annually. Fellows of professional societies are commonly listed on their internet sites and, indeed,many Fellows of these organizations are women, as one would expect.

Although common usage of fellow refers to a man or boy, the plural fellows also can refer to persons in the same position, involved in the same activity, or otherwise associated with one another. An extension of this leads to the following definition of fellow: a member of a learned society. In this case, fellow is not only gender neutral, but the term connotes significant accomplishment in addition to being part of a group.

AAAS states that "election as a Fellow of AAAS is an honor bestowed upon members by their peers. Fellows are recognized for meritorious efforts to advance science or its applications." Other societies describe their Fellowship status similarly. AAPT differs from the above societies in that it has no such program, despite the fact that it does present a variety of awards annually. For example, Distinguished Service Awards (typically four to six annually) are given primarily for exceptional service to AAPT. The Millikan, Oersted, Richtmyer, Phillips, Klopsteg, and High School and Undergraduate Teaching awards, while based on significant accomplishments, each are presented to no more than one person annually.

In contrast, APS named about 210 APS Fellows from its roster of about 46,000 members in 2006, representing 0.46% of its membership. OSA, with 14,000members, named 58 OSA Fellows for 2007, or 0.41% of its membership. If AAPT designed and implemented a similar program, it might elect, say, about 50Fellows annually, or 0.5% of its 10,000 members.

Given that AAPT is not a research-based organization per se, on what basis might members be elected to Fellowship? The basic mission of AAPT relates to the support of physics teachers and, more generally, to strengthening physics education. Physics and physics teaching are, by definition, scholarly endeavors; i.e., they involve serious academic study. AAPT could choose Fellows among members who have exhibited quality scholarship in the broad field of physics education. This could be based on one or more of a wide variety of activities, including development of laboratory experiments or equipment, new curricula, or effective teaching methods that have become useful to other teachers. It could be to honor exceptional science writing in journals or books, successful outreach to the public, or recognized physics education research. Many current AAPT members have done exceptional work of this nature and are deserving of recognition by their peers. These include high school,community college, and four- year college and university faculty—the main constituencies of AAPT.

Why might AAPT begin such a program? There are at least three good reasons for doing so. First and foremost, an AAPT Fellows program would publicly recognize and honor many deserving AAPT members. This would publicize exceptional work in physics education, making it better known to the general membership. Surely some members would benefit from learning about these contributions toward the advancement of physics education. Second, such awards would illustrate to physics teachers, school principals, department chairs, deans, and others that the physics teaching community places importance on scholarship in physics education. Alerting these people to the fact that advancement of physics education is important could help change the way physics teachers are viewed and how their promotions and salaries are decided. Third, in the process of highlighting significant accomplishments of members, AAPT would strengthen its own public image. This might inspire more physics teachers to join AAPT, thereby strengthening our association.

Would it be a good idea to initiate a program that names AAPT Fellows? I believe it definitely would. The AAPT Executive Board discussed the concept of such a program at its April 2007 meeting, and a proposal to establish a Fellows program will be presented to the Executive Board at the upcoming Greensboro Summer Meeting.

How might AAPT Fellows be nominated? There are a variety of options, and here is one of them. Each of AAPT's 18 area committees (with at total of more than 160members) would be asked to nominate two members annually, and the group of 47section representatives could nominate six members, distributed geographically (NW, N Central, NE, SW, S Central, SE). The editors and editorial boards of The Physics Teacher, American Journal of Physics, and Online Publications would be asked for two names each, bringing six more nominees. This would bring at least 48 nominees annually. Additionally, AAPT would invite nominations,submitted online, from the general membership (no more than one nomination per member). Each nomination, whether from a committee or individual member, would require a statement of the principal accomplishments of the nominee, a résumé detailing those accomplishments, one or two supporting letters from co-nominator members,and a proposed citation statement.

The completed nominations received would be forwarded to an AAPT Fellows Committee.The major task of this committee would be to identify, say, no more than 60 of the strongest candidates, based upon the materials submitted by nominators and any other relevant information available to the committee. The list would then be forwarded to the AAPT Executive Board for its approval, and then to the AAPT Council for final approval. Although nominees could be rejected at any stage,no names could be added by any of the committees. That is, the nomination process outlined above could not be circumvented.

Selected AAPT Fellows would receive a certificate acknowledging their election, and perhaps an attractive lapel pin. Each Fellow would also be listed prominently on the AAPT website, with a specific citation statement describing the basis for election. Letters would be sent to the principals, department chairs and deans of new Fellows, and press releases would go to newspapers in the city of each Fellow's home institution, including school newspapers. The AAPT membership directory would highlight each AAPT Fellow.

These are just ideas at this point. I am seeking opinions from members: Do you like the concept of an AAPT Fellows program? Does a more appropriate term than "fellow" exist? Personally, I would like a more obviously gender-neutral term, which brings me to the title question, "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow, or What?" Is there a suitable "what"?

In its discussions, the AAPT Executive Board considered the title AAPT Distinguished Fellow, which I like better than the less descriptive AAPT Fellow because it carries a stronger connotation of a distinctive honor.

But is a term other than fellow possible? Please send your ideas and opinions to me at Future@aapt.org. Many thanks.

Return to Presidents' Reports & Commentaries.