Charles Watkins, Ph.D., vividly remembers the first chemistry class he taught at UAB in 1970. It was a Tuesday-Friday course that met from 5:45 p.m. to 7:50 p.m. to better accommodate UAB students who were employed in full-time jobs and attending college for the first time.
Watkins was a wet-behind-the-ears 27-year-old who had just completed his postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at University of North Carolina when he began his teaching career. He walked into his classroom and first noticed a man wearing an Alagasco uniform; most interesting to Watkins was his hair, or lack thereof.
“He was bald,” Watkins says. “It still is one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever had at UAB, walking in to teach a basic chemistry class to see a student perhaps twice my age. But I also remember thinking to myself, if this guy can come to class on Friday night after working all week because he’s trying to make his life better or start a new career, then I should do the best I can for him and these students.”
Watkins, who has done that for his chemistry students for 40 years, is the 2010 recipient of the Ellen Gregg Ingalls/UAB National Alumni Society Award for Lifetime Achievement in Teaching.
The award is presented annually to a full-time, regular UAB faculty member who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to teaching throughout his or her career at UAB. It is considered the highest annual prize for teaching presented by the university. To be eligible, faculty members must be past recipients of the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and have taught at UAB for 20 or more years. Watkins was selected for the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2008.
“It’s just an incredible honor, and I’m really humbled by the selection,” Watkins says. “To receive the Ingalls/Alumni Award you have to already have received the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, so you’re in pretty select company. Then to be selected among the people who have already been denoted for achievement, it’s just a tremendous honor.”
Watkins will be honored formally during at the UAB Alumni Leadership Recognition and Awards Luncheon Thursday, Sept. 23. In his UAB career, Watkins served for 10 years as the associate dean for the School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, which became a part of the new UAB College of Arts & Sciences in 2009. He also spent 10 years serving the University Honors Council, the advisory body that interviews and selects students for the University Honors Program.
During his years of service as an educator and mentor, colleagues say Watkins has demonstrated an unprecedented passion and dedication in the classroom. He has taught undergraduate courses that require innovative teaching skills, updated subject matter and motivated students to remain focused on the course contents.
“In looking back over his career at UAB, Charles Watkins represents the quintessence embodiment of the Ingalls/Alumni award,” said David Graves, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Chemistry. “He is an exemplary faculty member and colleague who is truly dedicated to his profession and has made a difference in the lives of students at UAB.”
Watkins’ dedication to teaching in a broad range of chemistry courses, including one of the most challenging, undergraduate physical chemistry, has been an important asset to the school.
It’s a foundation that Watkins says began as a high-school student in Shelby County High School in Columbiana. He had teachers who were dedicated to their craft and to their students. Their desire made an indelible impression on Watkins.
“I went to a rural school, but my interest in teaching started with the teachers I had,” Watkins says. “I had wonderful teachers; they were people who were toward the end of their career and did everything possible to help the students achieve. I really appreciated that.”
Watkins graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor degree in chemistry and physics and a minor in mathematics in 1964. His thirst for learning led him to University of Florida where he was a NASA Trainee and earned his masters and then doctorate in physical chemistry in four years.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could as fast as possible,” he says.
Watkins completed internships with Shell Oil during his undergraduate days, but when it came time to decide where he wanted his life to go — academics or industry — academics won out.
“Again, at Florida in the chemistry department, the teachers were just great,” Watkins says. “I had been so favorably impressed by the teachers I had, I decided that’s what I really wanted to do.”
Change in students
Watkins has seen several changes in students through the years as UAB has evolved from a school catering to working adults into a more traditional campus.
The shift in the age of students — as well as the progress of time — brought numerous paradigm shifts toward learning.
Early in Watkins’ tenure, students interacted less with the professor, he says.
“They used to accept whatever the professor said,” Watkins says. “I like the environment today because students really want to know why they’re in the class. What are you going to do for them? How are they going to learn? How is this going to be something important? I’ve always tried to challenge the students and make it interesting.”
Watkins says he’s also been fortunate to work with many dedicated and fascinating colleagues. Watkins says he’s never forgotten the opportunity former Natural Science & Mathematics dean Jim McClintock, Ph.D., gave him with his promotion to associate dean in 1999. And Watkins says the long hours he and Dean Lowell Wenger, Ph.D., put in as part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation strengthened their partnership immensely.
“I was and am very appreciative of their mentorship,” Watkins says. “I had a great experience, and both of those guys were just terrific.”
Watkins retired July 1, but he is teaching two courses this fall and mentoring a new faculty member. He’ll teach one more course in the spring before he pursues the adventures he has planned for the next phase of his life — traveling to art museums, taking in the outdoors and enjoying concerts by the Alabama Symphony and events at the Alys Stephens Center.
As Watkins looks back on his career, he says he doesn’t consider it a 40-year burden, but rather an achievement and an exciting experience.
“If you’re a professional, you always want to do a good job at whatever it is you do,” Watkins says.
“You want to do a good job and have people respect what you do. In turn, you can be proud of your achievements. I would never look at a job as sort of being in a place meandering. I’d really rather try to go forward, make a positive statement and be a positive influence.”