Carnegie Mellon University
May 10, 2022

Werner Receives Elliott Dunlap Smith Teaching Award

By Marissa Pekular

Tom Werner, associate teaching professor in philosophy, has received the 2022 Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Distinguished Teaching and Educational Service in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“It may not be the most glorious thing to be a teacher, but it may be the most important thing,” said Werner. “ [I’m] helping prepare future generations to cope with the world, and I am gratified that I’ve been recognized [for this work].”

Werner has dedicated his entire adult life to teaching. Upon enrolling at Cornell University, he didn’t exactly know what he wanted to study or what direction to follow. Within his first year, Werner took a leave from his studies and traveled to Japan where he taught English to Japanese adult students. 

Soon after becoming a teacher, Werner became frustrated by the shortcomings of the typical English textbooks that were assigned to his class. He wanted to explore and teach the real language, not just memorize scripts. This pursuit led Werner to the study of linguistics. 

“My students had difficulty learning English, and the more I learned about linguistics, the more I could help them,” said Werner. “Languages should be fun, and it should be fun to learn them.” 

After learning more about linguistics, Werner ditched the textbooks and created his own communicative approach that consisted of general communication exercises. After implementing his own teaching style, Werner saw an improvement in his students’ learning experience.

 “This experience is what led me to find out what language communication really is and how you should teach,” he said.

Werner’s experience as an English teacher in Japan is what sparked his interest in linguistic studies. He returned to the United States and reenrolled at Cornell. This time, he pursued his passion with a double major in linguistics and philosophy at Cornell. He continued his studies at Rutgers University, receiving a PhD in linguistics.

Werner started his career at CMU as an adjunct professor, teaching major language. At the time, the linguistics major did not exist. He began teaching subjects such as phonetics, linguistic analytics, meaning and language, as well as the linguistics of Turkic and Germanic languages. Werner was present for the introduction of this new major in 2007, and shortly thereafter became the faculty advisor.

This semester, Werner co-taught the Grand Challenge First-Year Seminar: Beyond Earth, which explores various ways for engaging with whoever else may be in the galaxy.

In addition to teaching, Werner conducts research regarding linguistic fieldwork, which includes the sub-fields of phonology, syntax, semantics and writing systems. He also has a focus in Turkic languages, Germanic languages, Japanese and Lincos, a constructed language designed to be understandable by any intelligent extraterrestrial life in the galaxy.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life dedicated to teaching people in Japan and here at CMU,” said Werner. “I have worked hard to make the learning experience exciting and fun for everyone.”