The following was published in UChicago News on May 26, 2022.
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.
Learn more about this year’s recipients below:
Graduate Teaching and Mentoring Awards
Wei Biao Wu
Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
David Kovar, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology
Prof. David Kovar likens his approach to science and teaching to his love of sports: “I view sports, my science, and mentoring of students in the same light—we need to work together and help each other. That’s the way to make the most progress.”
It’s no surprise that Kovar thinks in terms of cooperation. As a cell biologist, he studies the actin cytoskeleton, a network of proteins that link together to perform all kinds of tasks in the cytoplasm of cells. These networks are incredibly complicated, constantly reconfiguring themselves according to need. Functioning properly requires the perfect combination of many factors that change as networks self-organize and interact with each other—not all that different from a full classroom or a busy lab.
Pulling off that kind of organization is a difficult feat in “Fundamentals of Cell and Molecular Biology,” the introductory course Kovar co-teaches for first-year undergraduates. As an active researcher and Dean for Graduate Affairs in the Biological Sciences Division, Kovar is used to working with Ph.D. students over several years to develop their scientific abilities. With more than 275 students in the fundamentals course, time is precious, and it can be an immense challenge to condense an entire cell biology textbook into a handful of 50-minute lectures.
But the payoff is well worth it, he said: “There is little more rewarding than imparting excitement for a subject to undergraduate students. I realize that I’m far from the smartest person in the room when teaching to our amazing undergraduates at UChicago, but at the very least I can pass along my excitement and enthusiasm for cell biology.”
Victor Lima, Senior Instructional Professor of Economics
For Victor Lima, teaching economic concepts can feel like “more of an art than a science.” That’s why the senior instructional professor designs courses that are a blend of tools and applications—combining theoretical frameworks with compelling real-life examples.
His goal is to make sure that students not only understand the material, but can apply what they learn to their specific interests.
“In my opinion, the power and flexibility of the economic approach are best illustrated with examples. If those examples appeal to students, then class discussion will be fascinating,” said Lima, who is co-director of undergraduate studies and master’s programs for the Department of Economics.
In a nomination letter, one student wrote about how Lima’s open-ended prompts sparked heated debates with friends over dinner. They also described how Lima pushed the class to engage with economics more broadly—to think about the discipline’s fundamental insights, along with its strengths and shortcomings as part of a larger intellectual landscape.
Lima also prioritizes research structure as part of his teaching, showing students how a consistent framework can be used to test behavioral observations across a range of human activity. By starting students on the road to critical economic thinking, Lima hopes to foster the analytical skills that will serve them well regardless of their postgraduate paths.
“I believe that all jobs are ‘research jobs,’” Lima said. “A thorough understanding of the economic approach, and the ability to apply it broadly, will be invaluable to our students’ future success.”
Julie Orlemanski, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
One of Assoc. Prof. Julie Orlemanski’s favorite class assignments is a “slow looking” exercise, which requires students to turn off their phones, stop doing everything else and examine a single piece of artwork for 45 minutes.
In their reflection papers, Orlemanski said she often reads student accounts about how “strange, memorable or transformative” those 45 minutes were. By training students to give deliberate attention and effort to art, she helps them learn different ways to experience the world and their own minds—even long after they finish her class.
“I encourage students to put themselves into contact with the intensity of art, whether visual and literary, and with the surprise of theory,” she said.
A specialist in medieval literature, Orlemanski’s courses emphasize the historical nature of interpretation. Whether students are analyzing a medieval lyric or reading an elegy from the height of the AIDS epidemic, their work generates a connection with the readers who are uniquely positioned within both institutions and histories.
“In interpreting texts, we make something new, a minor but novel historical conjuncture—one of those everyday miracles of the humanities classroom,” Orlemanski said. “In my experience, this performative, generative dimension of interpretation energizes students, as they find themselves improvising new tactics of analysis and figuring out the significance of their own acts of reading.”
During her own undergraduate studies, Orlemanski said her professors encouraged her to trust her senses of “curiosity and speculative fun.” She works to instill the same senses in her students, whom she described as fearless thinkers.
“In my experience, students start their first year here with a keen sense of possibility and a capacious vision of what UChicago could be,” she said. “As time goes on, they recognize that they are now thinking and writing within a new horizon. That sense of intellectual risk-taking is perhaps my favorite aspect of the UChicago classroom.”
Johanna Ransmeier, Associate Professor of History
Assoc. Prof. Johanna Ransmeier teaches the types of courses she would like to take herself. “Even when I am leading a lecture—and theoretically, standing at the front of the classroom—I am still a student of history first,” she said. “I want to engage with historical materials with curiosity, humility and respect for the experiences of the people of the past.”
Ransmeier’s research focuses on modern China, especially the areas of law, crime, family life and comparative unfreedoms. She shares with her students the subjects of her ongoing scholarship, “because I want to share the ideas that are animating the material for me—the problems that I am trying to work out.”
Before graduate school, Ransmeier worked in human rights and as an interpreter. She was also involved in the contemporary art community in Shanghai as a practicing artist and printmaker; those experiences shaped her commitment to the freedom of expression, and to political and government accountability—ideas that continue to inform her teaching, research and writing.
“It’s a cliché to say this, but teaching is an integral part of scholarship,” said Ransmeier, noting that she plays the role of tour guide, detective, interpreter, sometimes sparring partner or debate coach. “The classroom offers opportunities to think together, to debate and—perhaps above all—to listen to each other and to the sources. As an instructor, it’s important that I foster a safe environment for students to experiment and interact in this way.”
She added that history has always been politicized and manipulated, which underscores the importance of careful examination and interpretation of the evidence—especially, she said, as more and more people attempt to weaponize history.
“This puts an enormous amount of pressure on our task as teachers, makes the history classroom a potentially contentious space, and creates new challenges and obstacles to our ability to do effective research and guide students in their research,” Ransmeier said. “This is an enormous responsibility.”
David Schmitz, Associate Professor of Physics
David Schmitz wasn’t planning to be a physicist. He didn’t take any physics classes until his second year of college—and even then, only as a course requirement for another major. But it was enough to get him hooked: “I spent my third year abroad studying something else entirely, but I was always thinking about physics. When I returned, I changed my direction of study and my entire future path.”
Now, as a particle physicist who specializes in building instruments to study particles called neutrinos, he volunteers every year to teach the types of introductory classes that changed his own life.
Not every student in his classes will throw aside their plans in order to study neutrinos for a living. But Schmitz hopes that no matter their career, each comes away “impacted by a year of studying physics in a detailed way and recognizing how cool it is, its connection to things all around them, and its impact in the world.”
To foster these realizations, Schmitz makes an effort to show students just how much fundamental physics is all around them—from seeing how Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism explain the workings of an electric motor, to looking at the color patterns that are created when oil floats on water in the streets after a rain to understand how light waves interfere.
He also brings his guitar to class as a perfect demonstration of the phenomenon called standing waves. “Demonstrations and examples are always great,” he said, “and when I can, I try to do it with things the students might have at home or around them, rather than only with specialized laboratory equipment.”
In doing so, Schmitz seeks to emphasize that the physics problems he asks students to complete are not completely abstract: “They’re not just textbook subjects for the sake of challenging your math skills, though they definitely do that too.
“I’m always looking for ways to highlight connections,” he said, “both the connections between different concepts within physics as well as between physics and the world around us. There is a real thrill in realizing these connections that has never faded for me, and I love sharing it with students every year.”
Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring
Matthias Haase, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
As a university student in Germany years ago, Matthias Haase learned a valuable lesson he’s carried with him since. “We were reading Kant and the professor said, ‘If you are puzzled, hold onto your puzzlement; if it all seems intelligible to you, that’s a terrible sign,’” Haase recalled.
Now an assistant professor of philosophy whose research interests span ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of action, and German idealism, Haase still stands firmly by that advice. “The only way to get to understanding is to get puzzled and more and more puzzled,” he said, “only then are you onto some bigger question.”
Helping graduate students navigate that necessary bewilderment and move toward clarity is one of the most satisfying things about teaching, said Haase, who joined the UChicago faculty in 2017 after a fellowship at Harvard University and a teaching position at Leipzig University. “What I find most rewarding is when I feel like I helped free the other person’s thoughts—when the student feels that their paralysis is gone,” he said.
Those epiphanies happen most often in one-on-one conversations where Haase poses questions: “Sometimes it’s just asking, ‘What fascinates you? Why do you want to talk about this? What’s the troubling thing that motivates you?’”
Haase’s letters of nomination from graduate students overflowed with praise for his ability to help them frame arguments and structure writing. One advisee recalled arriving at Haase’s office in a quandary about a paper, only to find the professor’s whiteboard “filled, corner to corner, by argument outlines, concept maps, and interpretive decision points.”
This launched the two into “lively, energizing philosophical conversation” that ultimately yielded a compelling way forward. “It felt like we were engaged in doing philosophy together,” the student wrote, “and this enabled me to produce my best philosophical work.”
Chuan He, John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry
In Prof. Chuan He’s field of chemical biology and biochemistry, advances are made so rapidly that the discipline itself can be completely revolutionized in less than a decade—which is both an opportunity and a challenge.
“Every five to ten years, you have to reinvent yourself,” he said. “That’s the mentality I want my students to have, so we are constantly exploring new things. If you want your students to think out of the box, you have to create that environment.”
He’s lab is well-known for its liveliness and diversity, bringing together students with backgrounds in different kinds of science and walks of life. With more than 40 trainees, the lab is large by academic standards; He turns that into an advantage by pairing together senior and junior students, as well as those with different strengths.
“I try to have every student on two or more projects so that they can taste different fields of biology or chemistry—which means they are learning new things and producing different results,” he said. “I hope to expose them to the landscape of science. They need to see the entire spectrum and see what excites them the most.”
This balance of collaboration and independence struck his students, who wrote to praise He’s “balance of supportive mentorship and academic freedom.” One noted He’s “ability of getting students excited about a research question and giving them the freedom, guidance and confidence to explore [it]. … I always felt that he trusted me and respected my opinion.”
Despite the volume and scope of He’s work, his students also mentioned his open-door policy and his dedication to furthering their careers by introducing them at conferences and recommending them to write journal reviews or comments in their field.
“Entering Chuan’s lab,” one student wrote, “was, without a doubt, the best decision I have made.”
Josephine McDonagh, George M. Pullman Professor of English Language and Literature
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and University classes moved online, Prof. Josephine McDonagh immediately reached out to her students. “There was a tremendous sense of isolation,” said McDonagh, whose work focuses on 19th-century British literature, particularly in the contexts of colonialism, imperial expansion and global migration. “I could see it was hard for everyone.”
Though on sabbatical leave in France, McDonagh organized a biweekly reading group on Zoom to foster connection and community. “Jo attended every session and always took our ideas seriously, often thoughtfully connecting the readings to our own individual dissertation projects,” noted one reading group participant in a nomination letter.
It was just one of many instances—from conferences to workshops to in-class discussions—where McDonagh has masterfully fostered communal scholarly dialogue, always uplifting the voices of her students. “Jo has exhibited an unparalleled passion as a teacher, mentor, and infrastructure-builder, creating spaces where fledgling graduate students like myself can find intellectual nourishment, challenge, and confidence,” another student wrote.
McDonagh joined the UChicago faculty in 2017 after a decade teaching at King’s College London. Herself a product of the British educational system, where one-on-one graduate advising is the norm, she delights most in closely working with each individual student.
“I love seeing a project take shape, and I love seeing the way an argument develops,” she said. “I love it especially when students are proactive, when I have a conversation with them then they go away and read voraciously and reformulate the way in which they’re thinking.”
Megan Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Art History
To hear her students tell it, Asst. Prof. Megan Sullivan is such an effective teacher because she takes care to treat them like peers.
An expert on modern and contemporary art in Latin America, Sullivan is adept at making concepts clear to people of all academic backgrounds and interests. She emphasizes the importance of collective inquiry, welcoming each person’s unique perspective as they work together to make new connections.
“A fellow graduate student once told me that Megan’s style of leading discussions felt magical—that it seemed like everything was coming directly from the students, but that the conversation nevertheless concluded exactly where she had meant for it to conclude,” one student wrote in a nomination letter.
An engaged lecturer, Sullivan often begins class by asking students to share discussion questions—questions that she then weaves together “in surprising and generative ways,” another student wrote. She supplements discussions by having students examine art together, whether at the Smart Museum on campus or during field trips to museums like the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I find that graduate students are some of our most intellectually daring and generous colleagues, so I usually let them set the agenda for class discussions,” said Sullivan, who joined the UChicago faculty in 2014. “I intervene when, for example, I think we’ve reached consensus too soon, with the aim of stirring up some dissent that might push our examination of the problem further.”
Students describe Sullivan as a warm and caring mentor who not only encourages their intellectual pursuits, but is invested in them as individuals outside of academia. Her openness and earnest curiosity are among the traits that students hope to mirror in their own lives.
“She has become a crucial source of intellectual inspiration and support,” one wrote. “I feel immensely fortunate to have been able to work with her.”
Wei Biao Wu, Professor of Statistics
For Prof. Wei Biao Wu, statistics is a passion—and one that he works to inspire in his students.
“I find the best way in is stories,” he said. “Statistics is not as dry as numbers.” Instead, he teaches his students and classes to see the numbers at work around them—in hurricanes, in banking, in COVID cases.
His lectures are known for their humor and vividness; Wu tries to lay out not just concepts, but why and how certain approaches came to be invented.
His approach to mentoring, similarly, centers on uncovering and encouraging each student’s particular interest. “There are some who are much more interested in applied research, and so I’ll work with them to find problems in that area,” he said. “Some students are more interested in academic research, so in that case, I’ll give them projects that are more theoretical and difficult.”
Wu sets challenges before his students, but never leaves them to grapple with problems alone. In nomination letters, Wu’s advisees noted his generosity with his time; he meets twice weekly with the many students he advises, and keeps in touch with them after their time at UChicago. “He is available anytime for any of his students for any obstacle they face,” one wrote. Even after they graduate, he goes “out of his way to help them in any way he can.”
“I always think teaching and mentoring is an art, and it is important to follow the masters,” wrote another former student. “Prof. Wu is certainly one of them.”
—This story includes contributions from Mary Abowd, Andy Brown, Louise Lerner, Sarah Steimer, Jack Wang and Matt Wood.