University Announces 2020 Winners of Quantrell and Graduate Teaching Awards

University Announces 2020 Winners of Quantrell and Graduate Teaching Awards

Elizabeth Asmis

The following was first published on the University of Chicago College website on June 8, 2020. 

By Louise Lerner and Jack Wang

The transformative education that students experience at the University of Chicago begins with the teachers who inspire them.

The University annually recognizes faculty for exceptional teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students through the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching; and the Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring, which honor faculty for their work with graduate students.

Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards

David Archer, Professor of Geophysical Sciences and the College
For years, Prof. David Archer’s class on global warming was one of the most in-demand courses at UChicago—enough that he wound up teaching it twice a year, every year. “I didn’t want to turn anyone away,” he says.

Some students, especially those not in science majors, merely take away a thorough understanding of the problems facing the planet as climate change accelerates. Others might have the same moment of revelation as Archer did decades ago when first learning about how the Earth’s climate regulates itself over long time scales. “The professor was telling us about how carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, and controls its pH, the same as it does in our blood. Probably the angels weren’t really singing, but I heard them,” he says.

It tipped his life toward the study of the global carbon cycle, and thus his favorite moments in teaching are still when a student encounters something in class—say, the metal slag left in the soil after years of steel milling on Chicago’s South Side—that changes their horizons forever.

Support from the UChicago College Innovation Fund and the Howard Hughes Foundation allowed him to equip students to go out into the South Side and take their own measurements of air pollution and heavy metals. Multiple students have gone on to independent research projects based on those findings. “I love to watch people going off in all these different directions,” he says.

Another cornerstone of his class is having students read and present articles from scientific journals. They’re nervous at first, Archer says, but by the end of the quarter they’re not only reading but actively discussing and rigorously interrogating study methods.

“You get a totally different picture from reading scientific studies than you do reading a textbook, which always makes it sound cleaner than it was,” he says. “I want them to see the ragged edge of science, where you don’t know the answer.”

Susan Gal, the Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and the College
For Prof. Susan Gal, anthropology is not just about the practices of “others.” The field also offers a framework for thinking about the role of the United States within that global context.

This past fall, she saw this sort of conversation come to life. Teaching a course about how militaristic nationalism is incited around the world, Gal asked her undergraduates to think about big questions: What does it mean to feel loyalty to a nation? How do those feelings tie into language and religion, to tourist destinations and heritage sites?

Each student brought to the discussion a different experience, ones they saw in a new way as ritual events of nationalist sentiment.

In a letter nominating her for the Quantrell Award, one student described Gal’s interest in nations and nationalism as “contagious.” A history major, the student credited Gal’s course as having shaped the topic of their undergraduate thesis, imparting “a love for anthropology and its methods.”

Gal wants her students to leave her class knowing how to question and explore common concepts, both in scholarship and everyday life: “Ask how those concepts are made and maintained, by whom, for what effect.”

“I find it wonderful that among University of Chicago students there is a widespread eagerness, even hunger, for grasping how the world works,” she says. “So many students become sophisticated thinkers, quick to engage with the most complex concepts in the social sciences. And then in discussions they argue with me, using those concepts. That makes for great whiplash moments.”

Miguel Martínez, Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College
Last fall, Assoc. Prof. Miguel Martínez selected a text he had never taught before.

His students had enrolled in a course on world literature as part of the College’s Core curriculum, and the focus of the quarter was the epic. In addition to ancient works like the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, he added something more recent to the syllabus: Canto General, a modern epic poem by Pablo Neruda.

“I was terrified,” Martínez says. Published in 1950, the sprawling, complex opus spans more than 15,000 lines—attempting to cover the entire history of the Americas.

The students loved it.

These are the sort of classroom moments Martínez loves most. In the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, he has taught courses covering a variety of genres, from picaresque novels to the “Golden Age” poetry of 16th- and 17th-century Spain. No matter the text, his goal is to guide toward deeper intellectual and emotional discoveries.

“Students often take courses in Spanish because they find it useful for their future careers,” Martínez says. “They want to be linguistically and culturally competent. That is a crucial part of what we do in our department.

“But it’s really satisfying when they also find beauty and power in the literary and cultural traditions that we teach.In the case of Latinx students, these are actually their own traditions, so they may be able to enjoy and learn from things they were not aware of.”

Eric Schwartz, Professor of Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences and the College
Prof. Eric Schwartz teaches two very different courses with a common theme: “What we know is often determined by how we know.”

Thus his courses are designed to give students a firsthand look at the sometimes messy process of how scientific ideas and consenses are built and developed over time. In one course, students read and discuss original scientific papers in biology. His other course is an intensive, monthlong course at the UChicago-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in which students design and build instruments to observe the behavior of single protein molecules. (“If you limit your experiments to the devices that are already available, your view will be limited,” he says.)

Schwartz’s teaching has been influenced by two professors that he met during his own undergraduate years. “Fifty years later I still remember their individual styles, which animated calculus and physical chemistry. The common, essential feature was a commitment to present a personal view of their subject,” he says. “Today I try to do the same.”

He recommends that new faculty and junior colleagues likewise stress how ideas are conditioned by both facts and history. “Students can always learn from a textbook. I believe that they come to class is to get what is not in the text—a way of organizing facts into a perspective, which can evolve.”

If Schwartz could have his students leave his courses with any final message, he says it would be: “The course is not over; continue tinkering with your perspective.”

Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring

Elizabeth Asmis, Professor of Classics and the College

One graduate student recalls Prof. Elizabeth Asmis hosting them and their toddler, guiding prospectus revisions even when a babysitter wasn’t available. Another remembers her generosity as an adviser, calling her “a sort of Socratic midwife” for a dissertation proposal that had shifted course.

And still another recounts a scene in an Indiana field, where Asmis had organized a small outing. Watching thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, the student wrote, Asmis displayed “the same excitement and wonder and hope that she always shows in receiving, teaching and finally sending her students off as scholars.”

These are the sorts of vivid stories that fill nomination letters for Asmis, a renowned authority on the philosophical school of Epicureanism. A UChicago faculty member for over four decades, her teaching emphasizes getting input from students, whom she regards as “partners in learning.”

When Asmis was a student, two highly revered professors invited her to join them for one-on-one tutorials. Those regular meetings, she says, gave her a chance to exchange ideas in a more informal setting.

As an instructor, she tries to help students work out their own ideas—to dig deeply into their own thoughts and to find reward in articulating them as clearly as possible.

“Don’t be afraid to let the students know your own enthusiasms or misgivings about whatever is taught,” Asmis says. “This opens up the way to having the students develop enthusiasms of their own.”

Fred Chong, the Seymour Goodman Professor in Computer Science and the College
There are few scientific frontiers more open and exciting these days than quantum computing. But how do students get a foothold in a field that is just taking flight, one that derives its potential from the outer boundaries of physics, computer science and mathematics?

In both Prof. Fred Chong’s graduate-level course on quantum computer systems and his research group, he gives students the confidence to leap into this fertile landscape, which Chong himself only started working in a decade into his research career.

“Someone once gave me the advice that being a faculty member is all about committing to doing things that you're not yet completely qualified to do,” Chong says. “Doing research is all about taking on areas that you’re going to have to learn more about and building your confidence.”

Chong makes intimidating concepts accessible by offering students multiple points of engagement: engineering physical devices, applying math to theory and algorithms, or developing new approaches for software.

“We have students from molecular engineering, physics and math, and computer science all taking my class, and that's a great thing, since quantum systems are really a synthesis of all these disciplines,” Chong says.

That interdisciplinary approach transfers to his lab, where he mentors 10 graduate students and two postdoctoral scholars. Each researcher is expected to oversee their own project, but also support each other’s work—from hardware to theory.

“I definitely give them a lot of room to run with the things they want to do,” Chong said. “There has never been a day that I did not think I was in the right job for me. My students can see that I really enjoy my work, and I think that has led many to become faculty and researchers.”

Megan McNerney, Associate Professor of Pathology
The quest for knowledge is what underlies Assoc. Prof. Megan McNerney’s work in cancer biology—and her teaching.

“My hope is always that by the end of class, students appreciate how little we understand the genome, but how exhilarating it is to study,” she says.

The same way scientists chip slowly away at questions about nature, cancer and the body, is the way that she runs her lab.

“My approach to teaching, in the classroom or outside, is to foster students’ independent critical thinking skills. It is more Socratic than didactic,” she says, referring to the split between formal instruction of material versus a more freewheeling style that starts by asking questions.

The approach means that students of all levels receive the same attention and encouragement to branch out, according to the students who nominated her for the award. In McNerney’s lab, everyone’s experiments, ideas, growth and opportunities are important. “She is incredibly skilled at directing the projects in her lab, and it is so clear that she goes above and beyond to read and understand our field; and yet she is always willing to take even the most junior students’ ideas into consideration,” one wrote.

They described an inclusive environment in which individual mistakes or failures were never penalized or judged, but calmly and thoroughly examined and worked through. “The McNerney lab is a happy place to be, and even with all of the trials and failures of research, people sincerely like being here,” wrote one. Another agreed: “Dr. McNerney makes coming to lab a joy.”

Asked for teaching advice for a new professor, McNerney says simply: “Measure your success by the success of those around you.”

Eric Oliver, Professor of Political Science and the College
A self-described “hybrid scholar,” Prof. Eric Oliver has written about everything from obesity to racial integration, from conspiracy theories to the impacts of suburbia on American democracy.

In his courses this past year, the UChicago political scientist has touched on history, Buddhism and neuroscience. For Oliver, putting these different disciplines in conversation with each other is one of the most exciting parts of teaching.

“The best moments in class are the revelatory ones,” he says. “There’s a real sense of collective excitement when we push beyond the existing boundaries of knowledge.”

His nimble approach extends to his mentorship of current and former graduate students, with whom he has co-authored several papers and even a book. That dedication has left deep imprints. In nominating Oliver for this year’s award, one student described him as “an incredible example of intellectual flexibility and imagination.” Another pointed out Oliver’s work in leading an American politics workshop, calling it “a second home.”

Over more than a decade at UChicago, Oliver has chaired or advised on more than 16 dissertation committees, helping his students land tenure-track positions at schools such as Harvard University and Ohio State University.

“A good mentor,” he says, “is someone who understands each student comes with his or her own individual styles to learning and producing knowledge. Rather than make some uniform standard and then punish students for how far they deviate from this, I try to work with students on their terms, building on their individual strengths and helping each overcome their own obstacles.”

Paolo Privitera, Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Physics, Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College
“Finding who you are, what you do best and what you enjoy doing will bring you in the right direction—in research, and more broadly, in life,” says Prof. Paolo Privitera. “For this reason, I do not rush the students to focus on a single big project when they start working with me.”

Rather, Privitera has each of his graduate students try the many different tracks that physicists can take—from simulating the highest energy particles in the universe, to analyzing the raw data that comes out of big experiments, to designing and building bits of detectors to find, say, dark matter.

“This way, they learn all the tricks of the trade, and at the same time find what truly resonates with their inner self,” says Privitera, a particle astrophysicist.

His graduate students describe Privitera’s style as generous with advice, support and time, but also hands-on experience. “It was refreshing to see a professor so involved in every stage of experimental work: Paolo gets to spend even more time mentoring his students because of this,” said one who nominated him for the award. “There are few principal investigators who enable their students to participate in the numerous activities required to develop experiments from start to finish. Paolo is among the few.”

When things go wrong in the lab—as they inevitably do in experimental physics—students said he treats every mistake not as a catastrophe, but as a teachable moment. “There have been many times when I have worried that I had broken an expensive piece of equipment, but Paolo has always worked with me to figure out what went wrong,” said a student nominator.

Students also described a sense that every student had their time, concerns and growth treated as important.

“There’s an Italian saying: ‘Il buon giorno si vede dal mattino,’ which describes a feeling that lets you tell from the very beginning whether something is destined to have a positive outcome,” concluded one. “When you meet Paolo, when you work with him, when you take his class, you’ll only have one feeling. . . that you’ve just won the lottery.”


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June 8, 2020