By News Office staff | Main photo by Nancy Wong | Videos by UChicago Creative
The University of Chicago annually recognizes tenure-track and tenured faculty in the Biological Sciences, Divinity School, Humanities, Institute for Molecular Engineering, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences with the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.
Art historian Charles Cohen was planning to become a doctor like his two brothers, until a summer trip to Europe in 1960 landed him in Italy, where he encountered the art of the Italian Renaissance.
“Something happened that seemed magical,” Cohen says. “I felt I was discovering worlds—in fact, I was discovering the most famous artists in the world—but they were totally new to me.”
Michelangelo won out over medical school, and Cohen chose to pursue the Renaissance as an academic. “It was not only my quest to learn that I committed myself to,” Cohen says. “Teaching came in the same breath. If I had felt that I couldn’t teach well, I don’t think I would have followed that path.”
Part of teaching well, for Cohen, has meant never losing sight of the challenges his graduate students face. “You’re an adult, but you’re still a student; you’re a student, but you’re expected to be extremely intellectually independent,” he says. “Many have family responsibilities. I try to be aware of and respond to that.”
For decades, countless postcards from students who followed in Cohen’s footsteps to Italy adorned an entire wall of his office, a testament to the bonds he created during his 46 years of teaching. (The montage was erroneously removed in a paint job, but Cohen has pledged to re-install it.) “Each postcard had a note,” he says. “It was a wall of memories.”
Being a graduate student is hard. Coursework can be challenging, lab work can sometimes feel like drudge work, and often, experiments don’t work. For his students, Nicho Hatsopoulos makes sure that the big picture is always in their minds.
“I just want students to be passionate about what they’re doing and be creative. There are going to be ups and downs. But they have to realize that at the end, they’ll almost always find something really exciting and learn something about how the brain works,” says Hatsopoulos. “Just stick with it; it’s going to work out. I try to instill that in my students, which is the same kind of positivity my former mentors instilled in me.”
Hatsopoulos is keenly aware of the importance of the relationship between mentor and graduate student. His lab studies the neural control of movement and develops brain-machine interfaces, but Hatsopoulos’ path to this research was not always clear. Following an undergrad in physics, he studied experimental psychology for his masters, cognitive science for his PhD, and insect neurophysiology as a postdoc before finally arriving at neuroscience in humans and primates. Without guidance and opportunity from his mentors, his path might not have been possible, he says.
“For anyone going to graduate school, I would advise they focus on finding a good fit with a mentor and finding a direction they have passion for,” Hatsopoulos says. “Talk to fellow students about their experiences with their mentors. Find someone you can have a comfortable relationship with, where you can disagree but still be respectful. Don’t worry so much about grades or other things.”
When it comes to graduate education, it’s the questions that concern Heinrich Jaeger, not the answers.
“Many students might think that we would be very much laboring to find answers to big questions, and that is certainly true,” says Jaeger. “But the important aspect of mentoring is to find questions. How do you bring students to the point that they will ask research questions that are interesting and important?”
Jaeger, who joined the UChicago faculty in 1991, received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2006. He regards finding answers to research questions a virtual certainty.
“That’s not the issue,” says Jaeger, who conducts research on the mechanical behavior of materials. “The issue is, ‘What makes a good question and how do you find it?’ I see my role as a mentor in bringing my students to a point where they say, ‘OK, I can find questions like that.’ I try to make that happen by the way I structure the graduate career for my students so that at a certain point we can say, ‘Yes, you’re ready. You can find your own questions.’”
Heather Keenleyside first fell in love with her research field—18th-century British literature and philosophy—more than a decade ago as a UChicago graduate student. Now an assistant professor at the University, she enjoys the journey back to those days.
“Graduate student teaching is a lovely chance to re-inhabit that world, to join students where they’re at, read the same things they’re reading, and think with them,” says Keenleyside, who also teaches the history of the novel. “I remember what it was like for me to be in a seminar and encounter these texts for the first time.”
Keenleyside has found that an effective way to mentor her students is to share her early work—dissertation drafts, job applications, the first crack at a book chapter. “I think it’s important that graduate students see their mentors not just in book form, but as struggling to formulate thoughts and arguments, in ways that look messy,” she says.
One of the best parts of the job is the bond that develops with her advisees. “Working with students from start to finish is watching them come into their own, to a place where they’re your colleague,” she said. “It’s a really long process—for them and for you—so those relationships are enduring, and they’re close.”
Linda Zerilli loves the sense of discovery in her graduate seminars—both for herself and her students, whom she calls her “true intellectual peers.”
“I just don’t have a sense that when I walk in, I have to have mastered the material in order to teach it. It’s more of an exploration,” says Zerilli, who studies feminist theory and issues in gender and sexuality and is faculty director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. “I think that gives students a sense of input. They want to think that there’s something in this book that’s left to discover that the professor hasn’t already figured out.”
Zerilli tries to build community in her competitive classrooms, driven by her experiences as a student. She tries to avoid the “banking theory of education” proposed by Brazilian scholar Paolo Freire—“Professor comes in, makes a deposit in your brain, and at the end of the quarter, wants to get it back out in the form of an exam”—and instead tries to emulate her former graduate school professors, including the late Michael Rogin, AM’59, PhD’62, of Berkeley.
“His classes were just absolutely electric. There was this sense of urgency, that this was alive,” says Zerilli. “We don’t get taught how to be teachers. I think at the end of the day, it’s ‘Who modeled good teaching for you?’ It’s kind of like becoming a parent.”
Originally published on May 31, 2016.