Skip to main content
You are here

Henry McHenry Honored for Highly Evolved Teaching

By Susanne Rockwell on March 3, 2000 in

Few UC Davis professors know firsthand what it's like to be an undergraduate on this campus. But evolutionary anthropologist Henry McHenry does. He even knows what it's like to be a student sitting in 198 Young Hall, where he now teaches.

When McHenry sat in that very same room as a 1962 UC Davis freshman, he experienced what he calls an educational "moment of enchantment."

"I remember learning about the chemistry of the cell in that room, and going outside after class and looking at a tree, thinking about what I'd just learned," McHenry said. Such inspiring moments occurred again, when he studied anthropology with professor Warren Kinzey. That class tapped memories of a childhood visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York-and spawned McHenry's lifetime endeavor. "Kinzey made it possible to consider anthropology as a career, which had never before occurred to me." McHenry subsequently earned his Ph.D. at Harvard and returned to Davis as an assistant professor.

McHenry calls those professors who inspired his career-Kinzey, as well as Ledyard Stebbins and Milton Hildebrand-excellent scholars and teachers, who shared their knowledge with great enthusiasm. Nearly 40 years later, those same qualities in McHenry have prompted the UC Davis Foundation's James H. Meyer Fellows to award him the 2000 Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Announced during McHenry's human evolution class Thursday afternoon, the $30,000 prize will be given to him officially May 25. Established in 1988, the prize distinguishes the campus as a place where undergraduate students matter, says Norm Weil, UC Davis Foundation chair. "I'm proud this remains the largest cash award for teaching and scholarly achievement in the country. It is a pleasure to see the prize awarded to Professor McHenry."

Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef commended the selection of McHenry. "Inspired as a UC Davis student, inspiring as a UC Davis professor, a renowned UC Davis scholar, Henry is a winner in many ways. We're delighted to enhance that reputation with this prize."

Colleagues and students praise McHenry for his vision of the ideal anthropology education, for encouraging students to hone their intellectual curiosity, for the empathy he feels for his students, and for linking his prolific and high-profile research to the classroom.

"The way Henry McHenry's classes are structured, he takes his students through the research experience," said Steven M. Sheffrin, dean of the Division of Social Sciences. For example, while introductory evolutionary biology courses typically cover the topic of fossil evidence, McHenry and the anthropology department provide a top-notch fossil cast collection-just for student use, Sheffrin says.

He shares his delight in research

McHenry's "delight in the research experience makes it impossible for him not to want to carry that kind of experience into the classroom to students he thinks will also be delighted. They always are," says Bob Bettinger, anthropology department chair.

McHenry has a reputation for rigorous and insightful teaching, but also for making his classes entertaining when appropriate. He is known for his well-tuned sense of humor as well as his equally well-tuned guitar.

"Though quiet and calm when you speak to him out of class, during lectures he is obviously brimming with enthusiasm," says Jackie Eng, a recent graduate who lives in San Francisco. "He loves what he does, he loves to spread knowledge about anthropology and he loves life. How many other professors serenade their students with a song about Homo habilis that is both funny and educational?"

Just as McHenry found himself drawn to anthropology as a UC Davis student, so, too, he has influenced his students the same way. "When I came to UC Davis, I planned to be an electrical engineer," said Sandra Inouye, who teaches anatomy in Illinois. "My first quarter I took an elective, anthropology, taught by McHenry. ... I fell in love with the class. ... Eventually, I became an anthropology major, the best decision I ever made in college."

Warming the classroom

McHenry's humor warmed the classroom on a recent chilly afternoon. Smiling, he gestured toward his face as he talked about the "big, beady eyes, prominent brow and receding headline" of hominids during the middle Pleistocene period, 780,000 to 128,000,000 years ago. As he showed slides, McHenry warned about a particularly ugly specimen-it turned out to be a slide of himself examining a fossilized skull. The class laughed.

But while McHenry makes teaching seem like second nature, it is not. Or at least was not when he started. Though he grew up in an academic home-his father was the founding chancellor of UC Santa Cruz-and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from UC Davis, McHenry found speaking in large lecture halls unnatural.

"I tend to have a lot of nervousness about it, so to overcome that, I prepare carefully," he says, explaining a habit formed to conquer early jittery teaching experiences. "So I started coming in early in the morning and practicing in an empty lecture hall. I'd write on the board and make sure it was legible."

For the past 15 years, he's practiced meditation, which provided a side benefit-an easing of his classroom anxiety. "It's helpful in mindfulness, awareness and developing empathy toward yourself and toward others. It has influenced my teaching through attitude and an upliftedness that's very helpful when in front of a large class. As is taught in meditation, you have a strong back, so you have your strength, but you have a soft front, an open heart. That's been helpful."

Through his hard work and meditation, McHenry says teaching became "positive and energizing" and even, he says, more enjoyable day-to-day than his actual research work. Writing papers, he says, "can be tedious."

McHenry is known internationally for his scholarship on comparative relationships among primate fossils housed in museums in Africa; his findings have been featured in Science, The New York Times, Discover and National Geographic, and numerous scholarly journals, and he is frequently asked to give talks globally. McHenry's work, notes Sheffrin, reveals similarities shared between separate hominid species due not to common ancestry but that evolved independently, apparently in response to similar feeding adaptations.

McHenry says his research enriches his teaching, and yet, the reverse is also true-his teaching enhances his research work.

"I'm so lucky to be in the field I'm in. I do research on the minutiae of fossil anatomy. Then, in the classroom, I place my research into the context of the bigger questions of evolutionary research discovery.I'm standing in front of students explaining how it fits together in a big picture, only later to find myself in a museum, fussing over details. I'm more aware of the bigger questions when I'm teaching, and that carries over to my research," McHenry said.

One of the most time-consuming and creative aspects of transferring his vast research knowledge into the classroom is choosing what information to share with students, he says.

"We're overloaded with information. The key is the careful selection of what to say and how to relate it to the bigger questions."

McHenry says he is fortunate to teach a subject-evolutionary anthropology-that is inherently interesting to students.

"It looks at our place in the universe, our origins. It's not hard to spark interest to keep alive a curiosity to last all of their lives. So when a newspaper, magazine or television special occurs on this subject, students still have an insight into it, a curiosity, which is the ideal of a liberal arts education-expanding the mind. Only a small fraction of my students will go on to a career in anthropology."

McHenry has at the ready a Henry Adams quote about teaching, which he reads aloud. "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops."

"The rewards of teaching are tremendous. Students go on and live their lives; I hear from them. I've been around so long, the students come back. Remember, I started teaching in the Pleistocene!" McHenry said, his characteristic humor well intact..

Media contact(s)

Susanne Rockwell, Web and new media editor, (530) 752-2542,