By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; B01
At the front of a steep lecture hall, beneath two broad projection screens, Kimberly DuVall-Early was teaching 100 tightly wound college students how to chill out.
"We think, in our society, that we're supposed to do two or three things at a time," she said. "If you're washing the dishes, just wash the dishes, and focus on that. Go on the quad and just watch the squirrels. It's relaxing."
DuVall-Early's lectures about stress, memory and aging hold students in thrall. A line forms outside her office at James Madison University whenever she is inside. To a legion of freshmen and sophomores away from home for the first time, Professor D is more than an instructor: She is a life coach.
This month, the Web site RateMyProfessors.com named DuVall-Early, 48, the top-rated professor in the nation, based on student appraisals. Worshipful students have logged 125 effusive ratings of her course, Life-span Human Development, over six years, with the average rating falling just below a perfect 5.0 on the professorial virtues of "clarity" and "helpfulness."
"I know she's the best professor I've ever had," said Lis Palmer, 20, a junior from Virginia Beach. "I actually changed my whole schedule around so I could take her class."
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DuVall-Early's chemistry with James Madison students is legend. But she is not, perhaps, an obvious choice for best professor in the nation. She is not even technically a professor.
She taught at James Madison as an adjunct professor for 20 years and was hired full time last year. She has a master's degree, not a doctorate, and carries the title of lecturer. She is not on the tenure track. She teaches 500 students a year and doubles as an adviser -- a very popular adviser -- to 500 students who are considering psychology majors.
But pedigree doesn't count on RateMyProfessors.com. The site is affiliated with MTVU -- not a university, but a cable music channel.
Founded by a California college student 11 years ago, RateMyProfessors has amassed 10 million ratings on 1 million professors at 6,500 colleges. It's a massive, searchable database of professors and courses, in the tradition of student reviews such as Harvard's Q Guide and Wesleyan University's irreverent Squid's Eye View (now known as E-Squid).
"It elevates student voices," said Carlo DiMarco, vice president of university relations at MTV Networks in New York, MTVU's parent company.
The rankings, vetted by a University of Maryland researcher, are surprisingly sophisticated. They use a weighted average of numerical ratings submitted by students over the past three years. Only professors with 30 or more ratings are ranked. The calculations "reward those with consistent long-term performance," said Wolfgang Jank, director of the Center for Complexity in Business at U-Md., who oversaw the project.
There is a companion ranking of "hottest" professors, whose pages are tagged with flaming chili peppers.
RateMyProfessors is hardly the last word on collegiate pedagogy. There are more distinguished honors, such as the Cherry Award, a $200,000 biennial prize bestowed with considerable fanfare by a committee of faculty members at Baylor University through a formal nomination process.
Anyone can submit a comment to RateMyProfessors. The rankings yield unsung heroes of higher education. This year's Top 25 list includes Daryao Khatri, a physics professor at the University of the District of Columbia, at No. 3; Jim Thomas, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, at No. 6; and Joani Bedore, a communications professor at George Mason University, at No. 23. But there is no one from Johns Hopkins or Georgetown or from Virginia's or Maryland's flagship state universities.
Michael Stoloff, DuVall-Early's department head, said the award attests to the quality of teaching at James Madison, a rising star in Virginia higher education. Freshman applications have increased from 12,980 to 20,963 in 10 years, and the admission rate has narrowed from 65 to 61 percent. DuVall-Early works on a staff that "has written chapters in books about the teaching of psychology," Stoloff said.
But there is something different about DuVall-Early. It may be because she teaches psychology, or because of her dual role as an adviser, but students say she seems to be inside their heads.
She plays soothing indie-rock music on the sound system as students walk into class, because she knows it will put them at ease. She tells students about films and concerts they might want to see the next weekend. She reminds them to get enough sleep. She tosses off little affirmations, almost as if she were speaking directly to the one or two students in the room who, on that particular day, find themselves at wit's end.
"If you don't like your life, change it," she said at the start of a recent class session, working the room like a motivational speaker. "You can always be a fry cook, like SpongeBob."
She thanked students for coming to class "on this gorgeous, gorgeous day." She led the class in a round of "Happy Birthday" for a student in the front row.
She told the class about her award, drawing a deafening round of applause.
"You deserve it," said a young man near the front of the class, a surprising intensity in his voice.
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DuVall-Early cannot enter her office without drawing students to the door. There are advisees. Students from her classes who just want to talk. Former students who want her to know she was their favorite professor.
A few come with serious problems. DuVall-Early walks them over to the campus counseling center.
"Friday, I was trying to get out of my office by 5," she said, talking over coffee after class. "And I had a student crying outside my door, and she had my class three semesters ago." DuVall-Early stayed with her until 6.
Chris Antzoulis, a 2009 James Madison graduate, went to see DuVall-Early at her office during the first week of classes in his freshman year. He was having trouble adjusting, and she seemed like someone who could help.
Antzoulis went back "at least once a week, every week after that, until I graduated," he said. " You just felt comfortable around her, like she actually cared. Which is rare."
Part of DuVall-Early's appeal rests in the material she is teaching. The course, which spans human development from conception to death, is a set of practical lessons about the shaping of the human mind. It is taken mostly by non-psychology majors. Her lectures unlock students' childhood memories and root out the sources of stress in their lives.
In a recent session on memory, she told students why they sometimes forget what they have learned in all-night cram sessions, why their grandparents have short attention spans, why their middle-aged parents aren't so good at multitasking and why no one ever forgets how to do laundry.
At the midpoint of every class, DuVall-Early has everyone stand up and stretch. Just before an exam, she leads the class in deep-breathing exercises.
Born in Bethesda and raised in Rockville, DuVall-Early graduated as salutatorian of Richard Montgomery High School, where she sang in the choir with future pop star Tori Amos. (She later politely declined an offer to accompany Amos when Amos set off for Los Angeles to seek her fortune.)
Her parents, although successful in business, hadn't gone to college. They were adamant that she go, "but I didn't know how or where," she said. She started her collegiate studies at Montgomery College, then transferred to Shepherd University in West Virginia, then transferred again to James Madison. She started teaching in 1988.
One of her most popular assignments is the lifeline project. Students construct a vast flowchart of their lives, showing past, present and possible futures. Several students have told her the project changed their lives.
"It makes them think about what they have done, what they are doing now, and what they want to do," DuVall-Early said. "And there's a finite time they have on this Earth."