By Sara Patterson
While many still wore masks, graduates celebrated their first Division of the Humanities Convocation ceremony on June 3 in Rockefeller Chapel since 2019 with unequaled joy. It was finally time for the graduates, faculty members, families, and colleagues to move back to a familiar arena, which their pandemic experiences made the celebration more poignant.
“We were delighted to be back in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel commemorating the accomplishments of our graduates and looking toward their bright futures,”
said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “In my experience, the excitement, appreciation, and gratitude of this year’s graduates was unparalleled.”
In addition to celebrating the achievements of more than 150 graduating students with master’s and doctoral degrees, four leaders in the Humanities Division, including Dean Robertson and Dean of Students Shea Wolfe, recognized nine students and faculty members for their achievements.
“Dean Robertson took us back to University of Chicago’s motto and explained how it is the result of a series of concepts from various poets and philosophers, which was new to me,” said Joseph Solis, who graduated on June 3 with a master's degree in Digital Studies. “I was impressed with the dissertation topics of the PhD graduate, each of them being so profound.”
Dean’s Award for Graduate Student Teaching Excellence
Sarah-Gray Lesley, a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature, and Yael Flusser, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature, received the Dean’s Awards for Graduate Student Teaching Excellence from Eric Slauter, Deputy Dean and Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division.
Lesley epitomizes the teaching spirit through helping her students absorb selected topics even if they didn’t think they were initially interested in the topic. One of her students wrote, “She comes into the classroom space thinking actively about the diverse identities and needs of the students she is teaching.”
Another student found that “Sarah-Gray could explain vital but rarely-talking-about topics like how to write a paper title or how to skim for research.” Students think her teaching is thorough, knowledgeable, and accessible.
Yael Flusser is known for taking her responsibility of teaching and classroom leadership very seriously. During the pandemic, her students deeply appreciates her attentiveness to each of them and masterful managing of even the most challenging classroom dynamics.
“The class was composed largely of migrants or children of migrants, and the readings and discussion often touched the most difficult and personal aspects of the topic at hand,” wrote one of Flusser’s students. “Yael was able, through profound consideration of her pedagogy and an unusually attentive care for her students to balance perfectly between the two extremes” of skirting these tensions or plunging in headfirst.
Another student emphasized Flusser’s ability to create an innovative and intellectually stimulating course and marveled at her ability to develop a positive and respectful learning environment, which was genuinely collaborative and non-hierarchical.
Distinguished Dissertation Award
Katerina Korola, who earned her doctoral degree in the Departments of Art History and Cinema and Media Studies in the summer term of 2021, was honored by the Dean of Students Wolfe for her excellent dissertation, “How to Photograph the Air: Photography, Cinema, and the Problem of Atmosphere in German Modernism, 1893–1933.”
A doctoral committee adviser wrote that Korola’s dissertation “stands as one of the finest works of scholarship I have advised, both for its originality of insight and thoroughness of research.” Korola explores the roots and motivations behind German modernism primarily through the arts of film and architecture through its relation to new conceptions of the nature of atmosphere and sources of environmental vitality.
Another doctoral committee advisor thinks Korola’s work will not only be influential in the field of comparative literature but shows how bridges can be built between disciplines and by using methods devised to cross boundaries.
Janel M. Mueller Awards for Excellence in Pedagogy
Michèle Lowrie, Academic Deputy Dean, recognized two faculty members—Alba Girons Masot and Jonah Radding—with the Janel M. Mueller Award for Excellence in Pedagogy, named in honor of the former dean and professor emerita Janel Mueller
A Senior Lecturer and Director of the Catalan Language Program in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Masot is known for her teaching and individualized attention to students and her success at engaging them in all aspects of language learning. She inspires UChicago students and instills a lifelong passion for understanding languages and cultures, which are not their own.
“Alba Girons Masot has been the most impactful professor in my academic career and formation,” said Samantha Mateo, a student in MAPH.
Another MAPH student, Elizabeth Issert, explained that Masot always puts students first and “is wise beyond words when it comes to teaching a foreign language and teaching how to teach.”
Assistant Instructional Professor in the Department of Classics, Radding is known for exemplifying the mastery of ancient Greek lyric poetry for his students and honing their skills to be transferable to other aspects of life. During the pandemic, he mastered Zoom presentations to include cultural and historical information, the Greek text, a select glossary, and student comments.
Radding has a remarkable facility to enliven and deepen the study of ancient languages and texts by considering modern circumstances and problems, according to Clifford Ando, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Distinguished Service Professor and Chair in the Department of Classics.
“Professor Radding made space in the classroom for us to bring up alternate viewpoints and encouraged us to sharpen our own interpretations by directing us toward secondary material,” said Don Harmon, one of his students. Another student, Emma Pauly, believes he imparts his perspective from a place of immense knowledge, but does so with warmth and a respect that makes it a pleasure to learn from him.
Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring
Deputy Dean Lowrie presented three Division of the Humanities faculty members with University-wide teaching awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring—Matthias Haase, assistant professor of Philosophy; Josephine McDonagh, the George M. Pullman Professor of English Language and Literature; and Megan Sullivan, assistant professor in Art History.
As a university student in Germany years ago, Assistant Professor 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 although his 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.”
He helps graduate students navigate that necessary bewilderment and move toward clarity, which is one of the most satisfying things about teaching, according to Haase. He 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.
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,” which 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.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and University classes moved online, Professor 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.
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. “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.”
To hear her students tell it, Asstistant Professor 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, she is adept at making concepts clear to people of all academic backgrounds and interests. Sullivan 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.
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 student wrote. “I feel immensely fortunate to have been able to work with her.”
Bobbi Josephine Hernandez-Sze A.M. 1993 and Morgan Chia-Wen Sze M.B.A. 1993 Teaching Award
Dean Robertson presented the Sze Teaching Award to Maud Ellmann, the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020, she is an exceptional scholar with an ever-expanding list of influential articles and books. Her courses on the history of the novel, Modernist poetry, psychoanalysis and literature, the Irish novel, and the literature of war max out enrollment every quarter, according to Deborah Nelson, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor and Chair in the Department of English Language and Literature.
“Maud is a riveting lecturer, and students extoll the lucidity and depth of her lectures in which she builds a world around each novel and poem,” Nelson wrote. “Students attest to their enhanced knowledge of literary tradition, novel form, narrative theory, historical context, close reading, and sustained argumentation.”
In addition to the awards presented during the Division of the Humanities Convocation ceremony, faculty members and graduate students were honored through the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, Glenn and Claire Swogger Award for Exemplary Classroom Teaching, and Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
Associate Professor of English Language and Literature Julie Orlemanski received the prestigious Quantrell Award. Benjamin Callard, instructional professor in the Department of Philosophy, and Veronica Vegna, senior instructional professor in Italian in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, were honored with Swogger Awards, while doctoral student Marguerite Sandholm in the Department of Philosophy received the Booth Prize.