By News Office staff | Photos by Robert Kozloff
The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, created in 1938, are believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching. Presented annually, the awards reflect the College’s commitment to honoring inspiring teachers. UChicago faculty who have won many prestigious awards often count the Quantrell among their most treasured honors.
Not every 18-year-old is excited to read Plato. But at UChicago, philosopher Dan Brudney has encountered plenty who are. “Even students who don’t have a lot of background in the humanities will have insights into texts that are just great,” says Brudney, a political philosopher and the author of Marx’s Attempt to Leave Philosophy.
At times, Brudney has found that students’ fresh eyes on texts that have been studied for centuries can be a gift.
“You’re trying to get someone to engage with an idea as something that matters in human life. When they do that, even if they’re just 18 and barely out of high school…they can look at that idea in a way that you maybe haven’t seen before,” explains Brudney.
At Harvard, Brudney studied under the legendary philosopher Stanley Cavell, who instilled in him a belief that “the most arcane philosophical questions are the expression of a real human dilemma or need or puzzlement.”
As a teacher, “if you can connect the philosophical abstract articulation with the human need, dilemma, or puzzlement—then the students grab it.”
Gregory Dwyer knows that his field—mathematical modeling of infectious diseases—can seem intimidating to students at first. That’s why it’s especially rewarding when he watches students fall in love with the subject and decide they want to devote their lives to it. It’s also why he’s taken to wearing a T-shirt poking fun at his area of research in the classroom.
“This area is hard for anybody,” he says. “If I can learn these things, and other people can learn them, so can they.”
Anne Henly, PhD’04, encourages undergraduates to get involved in the research process as a part of their education in psychology. She would prefer to see her students discover different ways of thinking rather than mastering a particular body of knowledge. Henly is director of the Undergraduate Research Initiative in Psychology, so has a vested interest in getting students excited about research.
She knows conducting research will not be in every student’s future, but she thinks it is a valuable experience for undergraduates. “It really gives them the experience of working on a team, being responsible, having people waiting on you for your intellectual input, feeling like an expert in a certain area,” says Henly. “It gives them a sense of what’s involved in carrying any project through to fruition.”
Henly thinks UChicago provides the perfect environment for undergraduates because faculty and graduate students are conducting research at the very highest levels. She notes that the ratio of fewer undergraduates as compared to graduate and professional students allows greater access to resources and experiences.
Henly earned her BA at the University of Minnesota and admits her undergraduate experience was “extremely different” than that at UChicago. She spent several years abroad, pursuing both academic and intellectual interests, and she wants her students to explore the world too.
David Mazziotti ran across one of his former students on campus earlier this spring. The student told him that she now teaches chemistry in a South Side high school and that his course helped inspire her to become a chemistry teacher.
“It feels really good to have one of my former students teaching high school on the South Side of Chicago and sharing that enthusiasm for chemistry with a broader audience of students,” Mazziotti said. A professor in chemistry, Mazziotti this year received both the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.
Mazziotti commented on the remarkable qualities of UChicago’s undergraduates. He feels their excitement every time he walks into a classroom.
“That’s particularly important when it comes to the sciences, because if you go out on the street and talk to people, the general reaction is that they don’t like chemistry. But here at Chicago there’s an excitement for it. The students come in with an open mind and an excitement for learning chemistry. They’re curious about all sorts of different things and that really makes a world of difference.”
John E. Woods is professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the College. For 43 years he has taught undergraduate students about Islamic history and society as part of their Civilizations Core curriculum.
“When you begin to teach, you spend hours and hours in preparation. I used to write everything out in great detail, to ensure that I wouldn’t miss an important point or a clever turn of phrase. But I had a vision of myself reading the same notecards over and over again for the next 40 years,” he says. As he leads discussions and lectures now, Woods uses pictures, slides, and videos to bring to life the Islamic world between A.D. 1000 and 1600 for his students.
“I don’t care if they remember the details, or who ruled what, where, and when. But I do care about developing in them the ability to see change over time. I would like them to learn to think historically,” he said.
Originally published on June 9, 2014.