By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Jason Smith

My exposure to faculty members in linguistics who were brilliant and accessible really determined my academic choices. ”
—Lelia Glass

Amy Chung-Yu Chou sat in an emergency room after her first year in the College, taking in the news that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“I sent an email to Professor Abbott from the ER,” Chou says. “I told him I had just gotten this bad news about a brain tumor, and that I didn’t know if it was cancerous or if I was even going to live. But I wanted him to know I had really enjoyed his class.”

Andy Abbott had taught Chou in a Sociology Core class during her first year, and he didn’t receive her confession lightly. What began as a distant relationship between faculty member and student soon became a lifeline for Chou. Abbott, the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College, helped her through the next few months of diagnosis and treatment by showing her how to research her own cancer.

“I figured if he could guide me through such a difficult class, he could help me with something else that was terribly difficult,” Chou says. They searched medical journals for breakthroughs and therapies for her brain cancer, and chose the best physicians to treat her.

The relationships that emerge between teachers and students are not always so dramatic, but new research from a UChicago sociology PhD student suggests that such powerful experiences have lasting and far-reaching benefits.

Sociology doctoral student Christopher Takacs, a student of Abbott’s, has done a longitudinal study of the trajectories of undergraduates for over a decade. He has found a student’s happiness and motivation to perform in college can wax and wane based on close ties that are formed with fellow students and with faculty members. He also found that successful students almost always point to a single conversation or interaction with a professor as the most transformative event in their college years.

The research gives empirical support for approaches that the College and academic departments at UChicago already have put into practice. They’re designed to encourage serendipitous interactions between faculty and students, with opportunities to form meaningful connections. Just one insight from such an exchange can change a student’s life for the better.

Informal settings foster inspiration

The College sets aside funds specifically for faculty members to host students at social events, where everyone’s guard is down and the most significant learning of the College experience may actually take place.

Each department approaches this responsibility differently.

The Economics department, for example, hosts a skit show every spring, in which the students happily tease the Nobel laureates on the faculty about their idiosyncrasies in research, teaching, and presenting. The South Asian Languages and Civilizations department invites students to a quarterly dinner with faculty, while the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department invites various students to dinner at a popular Chicago restaurant at the end of Spring Quarter.

Christina von Nolcken, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in English Language and Literature, opens the school year with a tea for all students and professors and closes with a reading in which graduating fourth-years read from their theses. Between these highlights are luncheons, lectures, dinners, and events to bring the students together with faculty in various settings.

“These things only take a few minutes, and I think that they make an enormous difference to the students,” says Jason Merchant, professor of Linguistics.

“I had several positive interactions with professors that made a big difference in my own sense of belonging in a department when I was an undergraduate,” Merchant says. Now, he uses simple and informal ways to create that same comfort level among his students.

Barbecue ignites passion for linguistics

To understand the subtle power of these faculty and student connections, consider the trajectory of Lelia Glass. The Washington, D.C. native came to UChicago planning to study economics. In her first year, however, she took a linguistics class to meet a Humanities Core requirement and enjoyed the course work and the topic. Then her teacher’s assistant invited her to celebrate her success on the final exam at the Chicago Linguistic Society’s end-of-year barbeque.

“I had no idea that I would be fraternizing with professors,” Glass says. “But they were down to earth and welcoming.”

Surprised and delighted at being treated as a colleague, Glass says she got more excited about the study of linguistics. She took graduate-level classes that were open to all students, and found that she felt at home in the discipline and with the people.

Mentored by Merchant and Chris Kennedy, professor and chair of Linguistics, Glass wrote a BA thesis on a theory of adjectives, and she has decided to continue her study of linguistics in a PhD program at Stanford University this fall.

“My exposure to faculty members in linguistics who were brilliant and accessible really determined my academic choices,” Glass says. “I wanted to become their colleague.”

Transformative data

Takacs has made a long-term study of such stories. “These relationships with a professor have an enormous impact on a student’s overall sense of happiness with college,” he says.

He helped administer a longitudinal study of 100 students at Hamilton College. Guided by Daniel Chambliss, his sociology professor at Hamilton, Takacs asked the students about their personal motivations each year while enrolled in college, and followed up with them every other year after they graduated.

“We tried to see what kind of impact having dinner at a faculty member’s house had on students’ satisfaction with their college experience,” Takacs says. Many of the students in his study mentioned a time when they were invited to a professor’s home at the end of a class as one of their favorite memories from college. “A very small intervention like this created a huge jump in satisfaction and motivation,” he says.

Takacs and Chambliss have coauthored a book about their findings, called How College Works, coming this winter from Harvard University Press. Their research has had an impact on educators who traditionally consider motivation a fixed personality trait that students either have or don’t have, which explains why some succeed and others flame out.

“It surprised us how common-sense our findings were: motivation is generated socially, through pretty simple means.”

Cancer triumph spurs creativity

Chou took a year off school for her treatment and came back to UChicago cancer-free.

She kept a journal about her cancer and its broad impact on her life, including the research that she and Abbott had done. After she shared part of it in a creative writing class, Lecturer Dan Raeburn encouraged her to write more on the topic, and helped her fashion it into an honor’s thesis.

“The validation of having someone care about my writing and believe that it was worthy of letting other people read was wonderful for me,” Chou says. Her cancer story won the Margaret Annan undergraduate award in writing, and her thesis on the same topic won the Napier Wilt Prize for the finest BA project in English Language and Literature.

“I would never have written a thesis if Professor Raeburn hadn’t suggested it and guided me as I wrote it,” she says. The message Chou absorbed from Raeburn, Abbott, and the other professors who led her through the College was simple, she says: “My teachers believe in me.”