Otterbein Teacher of the Year Jennifer Merkowitz Inspires Students to be Creative and Original 

Posted May 12, 2022

Each year, Otterbein honors outstanding teachers for their impact on their students, colleagues, and the University. Professor of Music Jennifer Merkowitz, the recipient of this year’s Teacher of the Year Award, is described by colleagues and our selection committee as a “quiet but powerful presence” on campus who is “always focused on the students.” Merkowitz was recognized for striking a perfect balance between theory and application that leads her students to land jobs and careers they are passionate about.  

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In addition to her teaching, Merkowitz serves as a coordinator liaison for the arts and humanities. In that role, she serves to improve communication between academic departments and the Division of Enrollment Management to build more meaningful outreach between professors and prospective students. 

To learn what inspires her in her teaching, we asked her some questions about her approach to teaching. 

How would you describe your teaching style? 

I would say approachable. I try to make everything accessible and not intimidating, and that goes for both my presentation of the subject matter and my personality. It is so important for students to have an entry point from something that is already familiar, and to feel comfortable with asking me questions inside and outside of class. 

What inspires you to teach? 

I love seeing the lightbulbs go off when a student understands how something works or recognizes their ability to do something they didn’t think was possible. 

What do you hope your students take from your classes? 

I hope they take a sense of confidence and a desire to keep learning. 

Why are you passionate about the subjects you teach? 

Music is something that can be enjoyed on so many levels. People will say to me, I don’t know anything about music. But that’s not true. We all have an intuitive understanding of certain basic concepts that we have developed since birth. And we build knowledge from there. The more you know about it, the richer your experience can be. Music theory and composition is awesome because it combines so many different kinds of thinking. You are using your analytical, mathematical side to figure out how everything is put together and how to create interesting structures over time. But music is ultimately a sensory experience, and it is so meaningful because it communicates, and it moves us emotionally and physically. So there are so many ways it can be beautiful. 

What is your favorite class to teach? 

Anything that involves students creating their own original music. I love seeing the development of a student’s individual voice and how they choose to express themselves. Some of my students come in having already composed something, but most of them think that composing is a mysterious enterprise. They discover that it’s more than just getting hit by a lightning bolt of inspiration, that there are ways into the process. And the experience of hearing your own piece performed for the first time is so special. I love guiding students through that process. 

What do you think students get from Otterbein faculty that they can’t get anywhere else? 

They get that special combination of attention and practical experience. Otterbein students learn so much by doing. Whether it’s being the audio engineer for a podcast or working with a group of musicians to prepare a performance of an original work, there is so much learning that happens by completing hands-on work. And because the campus community is small and connected, we as faculty have the flexibility to create so many of these interesting projects within our departments and across different departments. Some of my favorite teaching adventures have been the joint projects we’ve done with visual artists, engineers, and creative writers. 

What is one lesson you want students to carry with them not related to the subject matter? 

The discipline and the creativity that you employ in the study of music transfers over into any career path. Musicians are creative problem solvers that have learned how to persevere. Collaboration and communication are also so important. You will need to work with others no matter what field you pursue. So put yourself out there, practice your listening skills, and share your ideas.