By Sarah Manhardt
Photo by Jean Lachat
The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prizes for Excellence in Teaching recognize outstanding instruction from graduate students in different fields. College students and faculty members nominate the recipients for the awards.
The prizes were established in 1991 in honor of Booth, the George M. Pullman Professor of Language & Literature and the College. This year’s winners are Christian Ferko, Maeve Hooper, Omie Hsu and John Park.
Christian Ferko might have left his PhD program if not for teaching undergraduates. Ferko, a PhD student in the Department of Physics, took a leave of absence to pursue a startup, but an inquisitive student kept in touch—asking him questions and reawakening his love of physics.
“Although I love research—theoretical physics research is the single-most interesting enterprise I've ever attempted—it's the human element of discussing deep questions with other learners that has kept me in academia and which makes me aspire to stay in it,” he said.
Ferko can tell how well an undergraduate student understands the material by the questions that they ask. Students typically begin by asking basic comprehension questions, then begin to question the “why” behind a concept.
“Eventually, they start asking creative questions, where the implicit subtext isn't, ‘I don't understand; help me think more clearly about this,’ but rather, ‘I thought very hard about this, and here is an invitation to think about it in the way I did,’” he said. “The question becomes more of a guide to consider an idea in a new way.”
While Ferko enjoys research, he is passionate about unlocking the same appreciation for physics in students.
“My role as an educator is to give you the tools and the desire to learn on your own: to tell you why physics makes my heart sing, why it sets my soul on fire,” he said. “My job is to convince you that the most interesting thing you could possibly do with your time is to sit in quiet concentration working on a physics problem set.”
Maeve Hooper has always aspired to be a teacher, and it was one of her teachers who introduced her to German literature. A PhD student in the Department of Germanic Studies, Hooper is committed to not only her dissertation but also her teaching pedagogy.
“I would probably characterize my teaching style as relentlessly upbeat,” she said. “I focus on creating a positive, welcoming classroom atmosphere where students feel comfortable pushing themselves and making mistakes, because ultimately, that’s how you learn.”
Hooper has worked with undergraduates since 2011, teaching courses ranging from introductory German to higher-level literature classes. She also worked as a Core writing tutor with the Writing Program last year, has been a teaching consultant at the University’s Chicago Center for Teaching since September 2015, and has just been awarded a position as a teaching fellow at the CCT.
While she has taught classes incorporating authentic German materials, she most enjoys teaching introductory German. Meeting all students’ need at various points in their proficiency can be a challenge, but she appreciates watching students become more confident.
“I feel like students are making progress when I see them taking control of the materials, and making connections beyond the classroom,” she said. “I love it when students find ways to incorporate their own interests into our class, and try to give them opportunities to do this.”
Her students inspire her as much as her own work.
“Teaching at UChicago has pushed me to be a more self-reflective, thoughtful instructor, she said. “I see how much work students put into their classes here, and I want to be sure I’m putting the same amount of effort into my teaching.”
Omie Hsu, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science, views the classroom as a “nonsovereign space for a teacher.” A political theorist, she has taught undergraduates since 2014.
“Day one of every course is where the magic happens because that is the day we talk about how the classroom is a collective and what that means in terms of the mutual responsibilities that a collaborative classroom asks of us,” she said.
She and students discuss how to break typical classroom habits, like hiding behind a book or computer, in order to fully engage in the classroom. She also emphasizes careful and critical reading.
“When recitation gives way to risk,” she said, “I get the opportunity to be there for something like pedagogical poesis—being able to teach through the moment when what’s world-shattering about learning becomes the occasion of finding new ways to engage that are reparative and generative.”
To Hsu, intellectual risk is key to intellectual development. She knows students understand the material “when they are willing to try something out even when they know they might fail.”
For John Park, teaching undergraduates is a means with which to better understand his own studies. A PhD student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, Park is interested in themes that are true across different environments, such as cycles of life through seasons.
While his research is highly focused, he enjoys communicating it and even challenging it with students.
“The most challenging aspect of teaching undergraduates, particularly as a graduate student, has been the constant effort to surface from the deep end of esoteric details and see how best to draw students into a topic,” he said. “The greatest reward is when that works successfully, and students start asking questions that you are asking yourself.”
Park, who has been teaching since his second year in the program, tries to present students with familiar but confusing puzzles in nature and show them quantitative tools that can be used to think through the puzzles. He particularly enjoys teaching matrix modeling methods used to study endangered natural populations.
He believes teachers should find ways to enjoy the classroom experience.
“I think there are many ways to make the practice of teaching enjoyable, even if for ‘selfish’ reasons like honing your own understanding of a topic,” he said. “But that's ok—a teacher that is having fun teaching is a good teacher, in my opinion.”
Originally published on June 5, 2017.