By Mary Abowd
Photo by Robert Kozloff
The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prizes for Excellence in Teaching, established in 1991, recognize excellent teaching of undergraduates by graduate students. College students and faculty members nominate the recipients. This year’s winners are Emily Dreyfus, Moira Flanagan, David Gutherz, and Jaira Harrington.
Born in Connecticut and raised in London, Emily Dreyfus loves adapting to new linguistic environments. Before coming to the University of Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in Germanic Studies, Dreyfus earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Germany’s Georg-August Universität Göttingen, a program she completed—with distinction—alongside native German speakers. “My German was pretty decent,” she says. “But I had a long way to go before I could put my hand up and talk in class.” That experience taught her about how to learn language—and how to teach it.
As an instructor in the beginning-level German sequence, Dreyfus says she takes a “communicative approach” to language learning. “I have students talking and communicating with each other from the very beginning,” she says. “They want to speak because often they are talking about their own lives, sharing information that matters to them, and forming friendships.” In addition to her bilingual proficiency in German, Dreyfus speaks Italian, French, and Arabic, and can read Latin and classical Greek with fluency. In learning any language, she says, it’s important to “jump in, speak and be assertive,” for only in botching a verb tense or failing to articulate correct gender agreement can students improve. “When you get corrected, it’s like a knife in the heart, but it’s so important,” Dreyfus says. “I try to get students to realize that mistakes are good.”
When she’s not communicating in one of several languages, Dreyfus is immersed in a language of another sort. An accomplished violinist, she has studied and performed internationally and uses music to promote peace and cultural exchange, particularly in Palestine. As a founding member of Baladi Ensemble, a baroque quartet, Dreyfus has played concerts in many West Bank cities, including Jericho and Bethlehem.
Early in her doctoral program in the Biophysical Sciences, Moira Flanagan decided that teaching was her passion. She enjoys nothing more than showing a class full of science-shy students that the topic can be accessible. “The thing that really gets me going is how scared people are of science,” Flanagan says. “I tell students you don’t have to be an expert in the field to see where the debates are or to be able to critically analyze.” In a course this spring called “Molecular Mechanisms of Human Disease,” Flanagan explored illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and HIV, explaining basic processes and introducing students to groundbreaking studies. The goal was to help them sharpen their analytical abilities. “When students hear an expert on TV announce a scientific fact, I want them to know how to decide if it’s right or wrong, if they agree or disagree,” Flanagan says.
Flanagan was singled out in elementary school for her advanced math abilities and later earned an undergraduate degree in engineering science at Cooper Union College in New York. Even though science and math came easily to her, she questions the way the subjects are often presented. “So much of science and math is taught in a way that phases out those who don’t instantly get it and focuses only on those who do,” she says. “That approach gives up on a whole group of people.” As a teacher at a small college—Flanagan’s ideal job after graduation—she’d like to counter that trend. “If I could get people to see that science and math are beautiful and creative and that they can be understood by everyone—that would be a satisfied life.”
An aspiring historian, David Gutherz was a little nervous to learn that most of the students in his Core sequence class, “Self, Culture and Society,” were hard sciences majors. They likely knew as much about Durkheim as he did about organic chemistry. Instead of panic, the first-time teacher took a philosophical approach: “Teaching is a kind of dialogical exercise,” says Gutherz, a doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought who studies post-Fascist Italy. “You have to realize there are things your students can give you; things that you don’t know.”
Gutherz invited students to use their science background as a “way in” to the course material. “You’d be surprised the number of times we ended up talking about physics and chemistry while talking about Marx and Weber,” he says. “It brought out things in the texts that I hadn’t seen before, like the extent to which major social theorists draw heavily on scientific metaphors to ground their thinking.”
Born in Israel, Gutherz grew up in Virginia and attended Oberlin College, where he majored in religious studies. He says with teaching he drew upon his own undergraduate experience at a top liberal arts college. “Classes work best when students feel comfortable to speak their minds and capable of challenging each other and challenging you,” he says. “A big part of it is creating that atmosphere.”
Last month, Jaira Harrington ran a half-marathon to support the Special Olympics, then deftly completed another long haul: defending her doctoral dissertation in time to graduate in June. A student in political science, Harrington studies Brazil’s domestic workers through the lens of comparative race and politics. Despite her rigorous schedule, she has managed to teach multiple undergraduate courses, most recently serving as a public policy senior thesis adviser in the College.“When it comes to teaching, I am both master and apprentice,” Harrington says. “I have a strong command of the subject matter, but I’m also really willing to learn.”
During winter quarter, Harrington instituted an optional weekly session, in which participants focused on completing their theses. Harrington worked alongside them. She says the practice of collective writing helped energize students and leveled classroom hierarchies. “I convey to the students that I’m vulnerable, too. I’m completing a very big step in my educational path, just like they are.” One of Harrington’s first experiences with the University of Chicago was as a Kenwood Academy high school student, when she was invited to study social movements and civil rights with Melissa Harris-Perry, then a professor in Political Science. “That opportunity, to meet a young, black, female professor and to study with her, was very important to my formative years,” she says.
This fall, Harrington will pursue a postdoctoral fellowship with Harris-Perry at Wake Forest University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs as well as the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race and Politics in the South.
Originally published on June 1, 2015.