Student experiences inspire scholars
Quantrell winners reflect on paths to research, classroom
Quantrell winners reflect on paths to research, classroom
By News Office staff | Main photo by Robert Kozloff | Videos by UChicago Creative
The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards are believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching. Presented annually since 1938, the awards reflect the College’s commitment to honoring inspiring teachers. UChicago faculty often count the Quantrell among their most treasured honors.
Daniel McGehee isn’t required to teach an undergraduate course in human physiology, but he does because of his passion for the subject and for teaching.
“One thing that has always resonated with me was whether I could instill the same excitement in my students as what I experienced when I was an undergrad taking a course very similar to the one I now teach,” McGehee says.
McGehee realized that even as an undergrad, he could brush against the frontiers of understanding in biology. And in doing so, the interesting questions that arose inspired him.
“It motivated me to pursue a PhD in physiology, and the process of defining the limits of knowledge and asking questions of how we can go beyond that has attracted my imagination ever since,” he says. “It motivates my teaching to help identify those limits today.”
UChicago undergraduates are more than up for the task, according to McGehee.
“We have amazing students. I’m just continually impressed with the challenges they take on by coming here, and by their abilities to think through complex problems,” he says. “The most inspiring element in my interactions with them are the creative questions they come up with, over the course of listening to lectures and thinking about basic problems.”
Even after graduation, McGehee’s advice is to never lose that excitement.
“Stay in touch with your passions even after you graduate,” he says. “One of great things about undergraduate studies is exposure to a wide range of ideas, and the opportunity to ask questions. Don’t ever stop.”
Derek Neal makes his undergraduate course, “The Economics of Education,” challenging because he knows the impact that a single class can have on a student’s life.
While an undergraduate student, Neal was pursuing a career as a lawyer—until a required course on economics sparked his interest and excitement.
“The skills that you acquire now, you get to use the rest of your life,” says Neal, whose research examines the design of incentive systems for educators. “There are things you might learn in a class that you don’t think are going to be part of your future, and you find out later they are. There’s something in every class you take that could shape your future.”
For example, when Neal first joined the UChicago faculty in the early 1990s, he attended a workshop by Profs. James Heckman and James Coleman on the inequality in education—principles upon which Neal now bases his undergraduate course and his research.
“Almost everything I’ve done since then has been an outgrowth, sometimes in a very crooked way, of the questions that were raised and the ideas that were put forth,” says Neal.
Emily Lynn Osborn was seven years old when she first visited Sierra Leone, where her brother was serving in the Peace Corps. For someone who grew up loving to read about the kings and queens of England, the historian says the trip “sparked an intellectual curiosity” in Africa’s rich past.
“It was really a wonderful age to go because I wasn’t predisposed to consider things in certain ways and make certain assumptions. says Osborn. “That opened my eyes to this part of the world.”
While an undergraduate, Osborn spent a year studying at University Cheikh Anta Diop, the national university in Senegal. She learned French and Wolof and quickly realized the importance of daily life to understanding larger political, social, and religious issues. Osborn keeps those experiences in mind when teaching undergraduates, many of whom take her introductory courses on Africa as a Civilizations requirement.
“I know that this may be the first and only time that students take a class on Africa,” says Osborn, whose research focuses on gender, politics, and technology in west African history. “I feel a very strong commitment to equip them with knowledge and tools about the continent, so that they may counteract many of the reductive stereotypes about Africa that characterize it only as a place of poverty, sickness, and warfare.”
From the squiggles and mathematical equations covering the whiteboard in Malte Willer’s office, a newbie to his classes on the philosophy of language and philosophical logic might have reason to feel queasy.
Willer’s undergraduate courses in the humanities utilize formal approaches to philosophical inquiry to explore questions about what underlies our ability to communicate and reason. “Students sometimes think they can’t work with mathematical tools,” Willer says. “But one of the things I try to convey is, yes, it is hard, it is unfamiliar, but you can do it.”
Willer combines the rigorous teaching found in his native Germany with the attention to individual students afforded in the American system. “My professors taught in a very demanding way,” he says. “This is something I bring to the classroom and that students at UChicago really appreciate—they want their classes to be difficult.”
Conquering that challenge sets students up for future success, Willer says. “I am presenting students an outlook on philosophy that they might not have expected, and I can only hope that at least a few will get hooked,” he adds. “But even if they don’t, I think most of them will acquire a way of looking at philosophy and a way of doing serious inquiry that will be useful in whatever they pursue.”
Sarah Ziesler never set out to become a teacher, but she became one anyway.
“When I was a teaching assistant as a graduate student, I really enjoyed the teaching aspect,” says Ziesler. Like many mathematics graduate students, she spent a great deal of time growing frustrated, not making progress in her research.
“It’s just part of the process,” she says. “During those times, teaching makes you feel you’re actually doing something worthwhile.”
After she completed her doctorate from the University of Sussex, she obtained a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“That involved no teaching, and I discovered it didn’t work for me,” Ziesler says. “When I wasn’t teaching as well as doing research, I found it difficult to get anything done. I needed that stimulation of teaching.”
Her Quantrell Award indicates that her students also need the stimulation of her teaching.
“I was overwhelmed that students would take the time and effort to nominate me. I know how little spare time our students have,” Ziesler says. “So many of my students work extraordinarily hard and with such enthusiasm that I am in awe of them.”
Originally published on May 31, 2016.