SUNY honors Oswego professors Belt, Lewis with Chancellor’s Awards

OSWEGO — The State University of New York has bestowed the 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching on two professors whose work has been transformative for decades of Oswego students: John H. Belt and Tracy K. Lewis.

John Belt
John Belt

Belt, a teacher of technology design for 37 years at Oswego, has earned lifelong admiration among former students in many fields for his groundbreaking and rigorous teaching methods in pursuit of making the world a more livable, sustainable place, nomination materials said.

The nomination letter for Lewis, a multilingual teacher-scholar for nearly three decades and a pre-eminent expert on the literature of Paraguay, points out that he has taught Spanish, Portuguese, Spanish literature and more in challenging but supportive fashion, always ready to provide extra assistance.

‘Leader among leaders’

A longtime proponent of the work and philosophy of the late R. Buckminster Fuller, most famous for the geodesic dome, Belt has earned countless testimonials from students — and from Fuller’s daughter, Allegra Fuller Snyder, professor emerita of dance and dance ethnology at UCLA, who wrote a letter of support for his nomination.

Tracy K. Lewis
Tracy K. Lewis

“Over the last 10 or 15 years, I have been able to give more time and awareness to the many people who are carrying forth and developing my father’s ideas further since his death in 1983 and making them more accessible to larger groups of people, particularly students,” Snyder wrote. “I have been aware that a leader, among these leaders, is John Belt with his exciting session at his own campus at Oswego, his leadership in ‘The Synergistic Collaborative’ and the coordinator of symposiums at other institutions.”

A former colleague of Belt’s at Oswego for 13 years, Michael Adams, now president of Fairleigh Dickinson University, wrote, “John Belt is a thoughtful, demanding, supportive and transformational teacher. … He reshapes ideas and offers different and multiple views of the world.”

In an August 2010 interview, Belt said what his students make of themselves is what he treasures most. “I keep in touch with many graduates. That’s very rewarding,” he said. “One is a designer for Apple, and his only (higher) education is Oswego. His last project was the iPad. He works with (Apple designer) Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs. Another who studied with me revamped a model design workshop, which is state of the art among East Coast industrial model builders. Another is vice president of General Electric’s Automotive Transportation. … It’s not only about the content. It’s really what they learn about themselves. It’s what they internalize.”

Another alumnus wrote that Belt “has a drive to instill in his students something most of them won’t appreciate until years later: the need to care. His life is a direct reflection of what he is trying to teach: from the composting station in his lab; to the constant running of videos of the greats such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Piet Mondrian and Buckminster Fuller; to the works of past students … Professor Belt’s philosophy has released me from the fear of the unknown and for that I am forever grateful.”

‘Wonderful teacher’

Dr. Juan Manuel Marcos, a former senator of Paraguay and currently president of the nation’s University of the North, called Lewis “without doubt the world’s number one scholar of Paraguayan literature, one of the least known literatures of our continent.”

Lewis has distinguished himself as a scholar, translating books of Paraguayan and Chilean authors as well as writing two books of his own essays and poetry and many scholarly articles in English, Spanish, Portuguese and an indigenous Paraguayan language.

Lewis’ teaching also has drawn plaudits from former students and peers. “It was my fourth semester when Dr. Lewis took me aside and told me the potential he saw in me which finally allowed me to dream,” wrote a former student who is now a professional translator. “Up until that point in my life, no one, outside of my family, ever truly gave me the impression that they believed in me or saw anything beyond the average.”

In a letter recommending Lewis’ nomination, Chancellor’s Award committee chair Joan M. Carroll noted that many students commented on the challenging nature of his courses.

“In teaching Spanish and Portuguese, even at a beginning level, Dr. Lewis insists on using the target language almost exclusively as the language of instruction,” Carroll wrote. “Understandably, this approach can be intimidating to some students. However, the vast majority of students embrace this approach and are delighted by how much their language and cultural knowledge have improved by the end of the semester.”

Typical of comments from former students — many of whom are language teachers, doctoral candidates or social workers — was one from Jennifer Rinaldi, who wrote, “Now as a working professional, I use Spanish every day in my position as a public health specialist with the New York State Department of Health. … Without wonderful teachers like Dr. Lewis, I probably would have switched my major, chosen something else, and I would never be where I am today.”