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October 25, 1999

Psychology professor receives teaching award

By Jennifer McNulty

Jean Fox Tree, an assistant professor of psychology at UCSC, was honored by the Division of Social Sciences last week for her excellence in teaching.

Photo of Jean Fox Tree
Jean Fox Tree
Photo: Jon Kersey
Fox Tree, whose work was recently written up by the New York Times and featured on National Public Radio, specializes in speech comprehension. She received the Division of Social Sciences' 1998-99 Distinguished Teaching Award at an annual division convocation hosted by Dean Martin Chemers.

The award, which recognizes outstanding undergraduate teaching in the social sciences, carries with it a $500 cash prize and an engraved plaque that features a "golden apple."

"Jean Fox Tree's teaching evaluations from students are consistently enthusiastic, citing her lecture skills, her dedication, and her eagerness to share her material with undergraduates," said Chemers. "Her teaching inspires us all, and I am pleased to honor her work with this award."

Fox Tree studies the role played in speech comprehension by words like um, uh, oh, I mean, and you know. These "discourse markers" are a hallmark of spontaneous speech but have been overlooked by most scholars, who consider them unimportant, even mistakes.

Fox Tree's work has shown that these "throwaways" play specific roles in communication, sending signals to the listener to pay more attention, help the speaker find a word, or be patient while the speaker gathers his or her thoughts. Fox Tree suspects that rather than hindering comprehension, these cues actually help us understand each other.

Fox Tree was selected by Chemers from a list of recommendations compiled by a faculty committee based on nominations put forth by department chairs. The committee was chaired by Daniel Press, Pepper-Giberson Associate Professor of Environmental Studies. The annual awards were established in 1991.

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