By Danika Kmetz
Photo by Jean Lachat
Graduate students Kyle Gardner, Elizabeth Erin Lailei Lee, Amanda Shubert and Hannah Yi have been named the 2018 winners of the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Established in 1991 in honor of Wayne C. Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, the Prize is awarded to graduate students nominated by College students and faculty for outstanding performance in the teaching of undergraduates.
Kyle Gardner first became fascinated by the Himalayas after spending a semester in India and Bhutan as an undergraduate studying history at Wesleyan University. After working for several years post-college, he returned to India and lived in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh, a borderland at the nexus of India, Pakistan and China. There he became absorbed by the question of how a region that had long been a cultural and commercial crossroads had been transformed into a highly disputed borderland.
Now a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Gardner’s research is focused on the history of border-making and geopolitics in the Himalayas, particularly as it relates to the colonial origins of ongoing border disputes between India and China. He has taught a number of history courses on South Asian history, borderlands, race, colonialism and research methods, and much like the question that framed his own research, Gardner shapes his courses around big questions.
“I love asking students questions that can never be satisfactorily answered because a nagging question is often much more generative than a straightforward story,” he explained. “My point isn’t to get students to respond to everything with, ‘It’s complicated,’ but rather to challenge them to form multi-causal answers to complex social questions—something that history does particularly well among the social sciences.”
According to Gardner, history is fundamental to everything we do. His goal as a teacher is to help students develop a mixture of empathy and critique that is crucial to participating in and contributing to society.
“The better equipped we are to contextualize and examine the problems we face, the more likely we are to find good solutions,” he added. “Wherever they venture after college, I want my students to be equipped with a set of tools for thinking historically about our present world and the past that produced it.”
Elizabeth Erin Lailei Lee
Through her studies and as an alumna of the College, Elizabeth Erin Lailei Lee learned that being passionate about one’s subject matter is invaluable as a teacher because that passion can trickle down to students.
“Many of the teachers and professors I’ve had were passionate about what they taught. So much so that even if, at first, I didn’t care for the subject they were teaching, I still wanted to understand it and do well,” said Lee, a PhD candidate in the Committee of Neurobiology. “It was infectious. I would love to do that for students—to bring about interest where there wasn’t any before.”
Lee earned her bachelor’s in biological chemistry at UChicago. As a graduate student, Lee studies mechanisms of voltage sensing. Lee has been a teaching assistant for a variety of classes, including Neurobiology of Disease, Introduction to Biochemistry and, most recently, Proteins in Action. In the lab, Lee encourages students to develop a sense of problem-solving and independence.
“Because I often teach laboratory courses, I like to let students try tasks for a bit before I step in,” explained Lee. “If everyone is having similar problems, I’ll stop to clarify. Otherwise, I’ll see what individual problems are happening and ask the student to explain why they were doing what they were doing. By the time the students describe what they are up to, they often find the solution themselves.”
Ultimately, Lee hopes her students will learn to fail successfully. “I think understanding that failure is okay, as long as you learn from it, is the best lesson I can give them. Most of science is failure and troubleshooting, and I think the sooner you realize that in life, the less failing will trip you up.”
For Amanda Shubert, teaching is the most meaningful and rewarding way of communicating her research and sharing her love of literature and ideas. A PhD candidate in English Literature who teaches 19th- and 20th-century British literature and visual culture, Shubert’s main goal as an instructor is to teach interpretation.
“I want my students to come away from my courses knowing how to interpret a text and understanding why their interpretations matter,” she said.
Shubert graduated from Oberlin College with highest honors in English. Before beginning her graduate studies, she was a curatorial fellow at Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she organized exhibitions, helped to manage the print collection and taught college class sessions.
“I strive to create an inclusive and stimulating learning environment for students, one in which they feel motivated to rise to a challenge,” said Shubert. “I think there is a mistaken assumption that challenging students to think and work at the highest possible levels is somehow incompatible with a teaching style that is sensitive to the emotional and personal needs of students. In fact, it’s the opposite.”
A scholar in Victorian literature, Shubert’s dissertation argues that the sense of realism in Victorian fiction is shaped by the visual effects of pre-cinematic optical media, such as magic lantern shows, stereoscopes and persistence of vision toys. She enjoys teaching because it is a fun and dynamic zone to try out new ideas, especially with UChicago students.
“I owe my students a lot—I absolutely learn from them,” she said. “One way in which teaching is particularly essential for literary scholars is that it forces us into the mindset of what it would be like to encounter a text as though it were completely new to us. Watching students wrestle with a text they are reading for the first time allows you, as a teacher, to rediscover it in profound ways and to notice things you’ve never seen before. It can be a totally magical experience.”
A PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry, Hannah Yi appreciates that students taking general chemistry are in the course for a variety of reasons. She has discovered that the common denominator in providing any student with a meaningful experience is to foster an appreciation and open mind for chemistry.
“Every week in discussion, I try to tap into that appreciation and excitement for the newest phenomenon that we learn in lecture by having small interesting facts to mention in passing,” said Yi, who teaches general chemistry. “Having a positive outlook on chemistry, and in any course, facilitates the learning process and adds value to one’s education.”
Yi’s interest in chemistry led her to earn a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she worked in an inorganic synthesis lab. In graduate school, she has shifted her focus to physical chemistry and studies how insulin is transported in pancreatic beta-cells.
“Because students tend to focus most of their energy internalizing every fact during lectures, they miss the profound insight that the professors add to the concepts,” she said. “I think a lot of students can get caught up in how concepts should be viewed and sometimes lose sight of the basic principle of these concepts. So, there’s a balance between maintaining interest and excitement in discussion while also reinforcing key concepts from lecture.”
She strives to maintain an open classroom where students are comfortable engaging in the material and asking questions to propel the discussion. “Establishing open communication in lab leads to a more dynamic discussion in the classroom and during lecture. I try to use different ways of explaining chemistry with a more conversational spin. I think this helps chemistry concepts to be more memorable and welcoming.”
Originally published on May 29, 2018.