By Andrew Bauld, Louise Lerner, Rob Mitchum and Matt Wood | Photos by Jean Lachat
The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching, reflect the College’s commitment to honor inspiring teachers. The Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring recognize tenure-track and tenured faculty in the Biological Sciences, Divinity School, Humanities, Institute for Molecular Engineering, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences.
To learn more about this year's winners, click on the faculty member's name below:
Stuart Gazes, Senior Lecturer in Physics
Stuart Gazes has been teaching introductory physics to College students since 1993. He said his goal for the class is simple: “I just want the students to be able to understand how everything in the universe behaves.”
And whether it’s propelling himself out of the classroom on a rocket sled powered by a fire extinguisher or discharging 1,500 volts of electricity from a capacitor with a bang that everyone else in the Kersten Physics Teaching Center knows to ignore, he’s been going about that goal with vigor.
Gazes said a high school teacher first inspired his fascination with physics—an excitement that now underpins all of his teaching. “The fact that after taking some physics classes you can at least have the overview of how the universe works—in every single part of the universe—is pretty cool,” he said.
Twenty-five years into teaching, he’s constantly refining his technique. “I cringe when I think about how I did as a teacher in the beginning,” he said. “That began this whole process of trying to do better next time. Every time I teach I end up thinking about what I could do better next time—to make an explanation more understandable, to make it all hang together better.”
Over the years, he has found himself paring down the material more and more to get at the heart of the concepts, rather than material. “Einstein said you want to simplify everything as much as possible, but no more. So I guess I do too.”
Kimberly Hoang, Assistant Professor in Sociology
Finding the hidden stories is an important aspect of sociologist Kimberly Kay Hoang’s research as well as her teaching.
A scholar of gender, globalization and economic sociology, Hoang traces the complicated and often invisible flow of capital from offshore funds in places like the Cayman Islands to holding companies in Hong Kong by interviewing hundreds of financial actors—from CEOs and fund managers to company secretaries.
In her teaching, Hoang asks students to do something similar. In a course called “States, Markets and Bodies,” students are tasked with going out into the field and conducting a walking tour of two neighborhoods in Chicago. She said the experience resonates with her undergraduate students.
“Students will engage with people in different ways. Sometimes it’s just quiet observation and sometimes they go into libraries and grocery stores and approach people and talk to them,” Hoang said. But with either experience, the importance is for students to engage with the world beyond the University and its campus.
Hoang has only taught at UChicago for three years, but the Quantrell winner said she has deeply valued the time spent in the classroom.
“I always say to students that they should challenge me, and we should engage in a productive, constructive debate,” Hoang said. “I think those moments in the classroom are just really magical because it does feel like a mutual engagement, breaking down the hierarchy between professor and student.”
Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology
In his 27 years at the University of Chicago, psychology scholar Boaz Keysar has made two changes to how he teaches.
The first is that he drew lessons from his wife, Clinical Prof. Linda E. Ginzel, whom Keysar calls a “master teacher.” The second, Keysar said, is that he “stopped worrying about teaching and started worrying about learning.”
“I always ask myself: ‘What is important for students here to learn?’ Keysar said. “I tried to focus on what they got from my teaching, and that’s become the most important thing: to evaluate the value for the students from each class I teach.”
Keysar’s research focuses on the relationship between the use of language and decision making. Recent discoveries from his lab team show that individuals are far less biased and less emotional when making choices in a non-native language.
Keysar has developed two advanced undergraduate courses that are related to his work, the Psychology of Decision-Making and the Psychology of Negotiating. After 10 years teaching the two courses, Keysar has heard from a variety of former students, from doctors and lawyers to software developers and teachers, who continue to find the material useful in their careers.
But whatever current or future students walk away with, Keysar said he has one simple goal for every class.
“My main hope is that they will go back to their dorm and talk about it—tell their friends about the interesting things they learned,” Keysar said.
Peggy Mason, Professor in Neurobiology
Peggy Mason said one of her favorite teaching experiences was a neuroanatomy course in the University’s study abroad program in Paris, where the classroom at UChicago’s Center in Paris was decorated with works on loan from the Smart Museum of Art.
“I was so happy. There I was with students, brains and Chagall. That's a good classroom,” she said.
She said she would be just as happy teaching the course anywhere though, as long as she had ample time to engage in lengthy, in-depth conversations with her students. For her, the goal of both the study abroad course and the introductory Fundamentals of Neuroscience course she teaches for undergraduates on campus is to foster excitement about learning neurobiology.
If that means changing the syllabus when it snows—like it did one day in Paris—to teach students about how motor reflexes keep you from slipping on the ice, so be it. She wants to engage her students in what interests them.
She said she learned her teaching approach from her mother, who was an art teacher.
“She just has a very can-do, supportive attitude toward teaching, so I feel the same way,” she said. “In art, and the same goes for neuroscience, when you have a young person who’s extremely capable, you view them as future colleagues. It’s really a partnership with the students.”
Nadine Moeller, Associate Professor of Egyptian Archaeology
The Oriental Institute, a world-renowned center for research focused on the study of the ancient Middle East located on the UChicago campus, is one of archaeologist Nadine Moeller’s favorite places to teach.
“When I am teaching my introductory course on ancient Egyptian art, I have the opportunity to decide during class at any time, ‘Oh wait, that piece is actually here,’ and we can just go down to the museum and take a look,” she said.
One day she was discussing a pair of famous statues of king Tutankhamen, so she took the students downstairs into the Oriental Institute museum in order take a close look at the one that is here in Chicago. “We were able to compare how this larger than life-size statue is displayed and restored with photos of the other statue currently in the Cairo museum, and we could have this really interesting discussion about how we should restore ancient art—or if we should at all.”
Her challenge is to bring the ancient world alive, and one way she does so is to discuss how ancient civilizations dealt with the issues we’re dealing with today. “Take climate change: We talk about it all the time,” she said. “You can actually also study climate change for ancient societies: How did they respond, what were their responses to fragile environments and how did they adapt? Not only does this help us to understand what's going on today, but also gives us a certain outlook on the future.”
In terms of advice for students, Moeller drew from what her own mentor, noted archaeologist Barry Kemp with the University of Cambridge, instilled in her in graduate school. “Never be afraid to follow your dreams and your real motivation, and don’t let other people dictate what you can do in your life,” she said. “And always be curious.”
Niall Atkinson, Associate Professor of Art History and the College
Niall Atkinson has entire cities for his classrooms.
A scholar of the history of architecture and urbanism in late-medieval and Renaissance Italy, as well as a co-curator of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, much of Atkinson’s research and teaching is based on site investigation of cities such as Venice, Florence and Rome, bringing to light centuries of history from a variety of perspectives.
One area of interest for Atkinson is everyday sound in early-modern Italian cities, which he teaches in his undergraduate course “Image, Spectacle, Sound” and expands upon with his graduate students.
“I try to demonstrate to students how the built environment is a protagonist in civic life, and how a society expresses itself through processions, music and other sounds,” Atkinson said. That then gets students to think of their own lives in the city, “saturated with all kinds of media—propaganda, art, political strife, community building, violence and celebration.”
That connection between the past and present is an important goal of Atkinson’s teaching and mentoring, hoping to inspire students “to push their own intellectual assumptions beyond conventional limits.”
“I hope that they will have the ability to interpret the relationship between people and buildings, both in a historical context but also in the dynamics of their own encounters with contemporary spaces because the past and the present are constantly mutually informing each other,” Atkinson said. He hoped students were “much more critically aware of the effects these spaces have on their behavior and thinking, and how they can carve out their own spaces within it.”
Rina Foygel Barber, Associate Professor in Statistics and the College
Rina Foygel Barber’s statistics work involves finding connections in numbers; and that’s her favorite part of teaching and advising, too.
“Advising is wonderful because it’s a long-term relationship that really grows and in directions you never would have predicted,” she said. “The extent to which their interests develop and grow and they make connections that never would have occurred to me, has just been fantastic.”
Teaching, meanwhile, offers an opportunity to think deeply about how to connect theory with applications. Her Multiple Testing course, offered to both undergraduate and graduate students, combines statistical theory with applications in a way that, she says, forces her to think more deeply about the two traditional sides of academia. “I think teaching is a great place to aspire to connect all the theory we do to applications, and then to look at applications and see what else to try by turning to the theory for inspiration, and back and forth,” she said.
And over Barber’s five years as a professor at the University, she’s enjoyed watched many of her students go through a full transformation.
“It has been really incredible to watch advisees go from someone taking a class and saying ‘I’d like to do research, but I don’t know how to start,’ to be at a conference together and watch them strike up a conversation with a highly prominent scientist in the field as a peer,” she said. “They’ve just taken off.”
John Brehm, Professor in Political Studies
Both in his teaching and his mentoring of graduate students, Brehm said his mission is to help them “get the most out of their data.”
A great deal of empirical research in political science and sociology today is heavily steeped in quantitative methods, and through courses such as Maximum Likelihood and Regression, Brehm introduces his students to the statistical tools they need to understand complex, real-world processes. With these methods, researchers can interrogate the causes driving political phenomena, such as voter turnout, the composition of Donald Trump’s Cabinet or policy preferences.
“We take the observed data and ask what possible patterns could account for the data we see,” Brehm said. “The purpose of the class is to be able to draw on a rich set of social and political information and to be able to make comparative statements about what is more probable than something else.”
While the methods haven’t changed, Brehm looks to his students to bring in fresh questions each year to probe with statistics. He cites a heightened interest at the University of Chicago in the intersections of race and gender with politics as providing an exciting pipeline of new subjects for research and teaching.
“It's always perking up my interest and making me think more about alternative ways to consider politics, particularly politics as seen from the views not of elites, but of ordinary people,” Brehm said.
David Freedman, Professor in Neurobiology
When David Freedman advises graduate students about the next steps in their careers, he asks them to think about one very important thing: “What do you actually like doing with your day?”
Freedman, who teaches a course for undergraduates and advises graduate students in his neurobiology lab, said that the field of neuroscience is so wide and varied that his question could mean anything—from writing computer code to building electronic devices to treating medical patients. His goal is to set up students for success, no matter what they decide.
“Science is hard. Science is unpredictable. The best plans and the best designed experiments can still fail for unexpected and unanticipated reasons that aren’t anyone's fault,” he said. “So I try to create an environment where you can study interesting questions but also have the support you need.”
Freedman knows he can’t teach students everything they need to know about neuroscience, so his goal is to get them excited about the material and explore their own interests.
“A really positive thing about UChicago is that it has relatively small barriers between different fields and different departments,” he said. “The students who choose to come here are often interested in doing the kind of work that bridges traditional divides between disciplines. These are the kinds of research opportunities you can do in a place where everyone is really in one place.”
Susan Schreiner, Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology and in the College
Susan Schreiner’s expertise is the early modern era—the period between the 14th and 16th centuries that includes the Reformation, the Renaissance, and other world-changing ideas and events. In class, her top priority is teaching students how to listen to history, not just memorize it.
“I want the dead to not be forgotten. The dead still speak if you’re willing to listen,” Schreiner said. “If a historian doesn’t know how to listen, they’re not a historian.”
The religious and philosophical works of Martin Luther, John Calvin and St. Augustine can be impenetrably foreign to modern readers. Schreiner strives to help students understand the tensions that influenced the questions these thinkers chose, even if their answers may seem incompatible with today’s world.
“I take the insights of the past, and I apply them to the present—not because I think they're similar, but because I think it's good for people to know there were different ways of thinking,” Schreiner said.
As a graduate adviser, she nudges students to find their own path, rather than follow her work, which has included material on the Book of Job and the search for certainty. In her classes, she uses recent film and television—True Detective is a recent favorite—and humorous personal stories to make dense concepts such as predestination accessible and memorable.
“The job of a lecturer is not to dumb it down at all, but to take complex, serious topics and make them clear,” Schreiner said. “I do enjoy lecturing because I think I'm able to convey my love of the subject.”
Originally published on May 29, 2018.