College recognizes excellence in teaching with Quantrell Awards

The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching, reflect the College’s commitment to honor inspiring teachers.

Andrew Abbott, the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College

For Andrew Abbott, teaching isn’t about material.

“If you want to learn European history, you’re going to do that better by reading a book—and reading it again, and reading it again,” Abbott said.

Instead, Abbott teaches skills. He wants students to learn how to read, how to think and how to make an argument. He finds too many undergraduates enter his class being able to make a point, but not summarize the idea of a classmate and then reframe it to make an argument against it.

“What a faculty member can actually do is teach you how to teach yourself, teach skills on how to think,” Abbott said.

Abbott, AM’75, PhD’82, joined the UChicago faculty in 1991 with his research focusing on the professions. Over the last two decades, his work has shifted to focus on higher education, the evolution of knowledge and the development of libraries. The results include what he described as two “off-beat” textbooks—Methods of Discovery and Digital/Paper: A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials.

One skill that Abbott finds crucial to teach is the ability to sift through deluge of information students face today. “The answer to every question is staring you in the face, but so is a lot of other stuff that’s irrelevant and what you need is actual ideas in your head so that you can say ‘Oh, I should follow that,’” he said.

Agnes Callard, Assistant Professor in Philosophy and the College

In many ways, Agnes Callard, AB’97, never really stopped being a student at the University of Chicago.

“I haven't had to find my way in the world in the sense that college ends and something different starts,” she said. “I kind of just kept doing what I was doing as an undergrad until now.”

Despite being an assistant professor in philosophy, teaching courses on ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics, Callard has never given up her role as a student. In her time on the faculty, Callard raves about courses she has taken on epistemology with Anubav Vasudevan as well as two classes she took from colleague Gabriel Lear.

“I really would have liked to have taken Robert Pippin’s class on Hegel this quarter,” she said. “But I couldn’t because it was the same time as the class I was teaching.”

Hearing Callard’s philosophy of teaching, it makes sense that she never truly separated the student and the teacher from her own life.

“Teaching is a really special form of cooperative activity,” she said. “Aristotle says that teaching only happens when the student is learning. That’s because the teaching and learning happen in the same place, in the student, in the mind of another person.”

Bana Jabri, Professor in Medicine, Pediatrics and the College

Bana Jabri likes to compare her teaching method to a cubist painting.

“At the beginning of the course, I introduce different elements for which students don't necessarily see a meaning or a global image,” she said. “I tell them they have to trust me, that it's not done randomly, but that it's part of how we think scientifically.”

Jabri structures her courses in immunology and immunopathology so that students can build a foundation on the basic concepts without getting lost in the details. She says her somewhat old-fashioned method of using a whiteboard instead of computer slides in class sometimes unsettles students, but it helps her avoid overloading them with too much information too quickly.

Her goal is not only to help them master the fundamentals, but also give them the confidence that they can contribute their own ideas.

“Initially they are very scared because they think they cannot do it,” Jabri said. “But the one thing they learn—and it’s absolutely key for me that they take out of class—is that however young, one can have an outstanding idea.”

Scott Snyder, Professor in Chemistry and the College

Scott Snyder’s favorite classroom is Kent 107—a cavernous, octagonal room where he can move from blackboard to blackboard as he teaches.

“I’m kind of old-school. I like teaching with chalk,” he said.

Snyder teaches introductory courses in the undergraduate organic chemistry sequence, holding a keen awareness of differences among the students. He said it’s crucial to understand in a single row of seats there may be a first-year thinking about medical school, a third-year interested in chemical engineering, and a second-year who wants to get a doctorate in chemistry.

“On a basic level, I have to teach how A gets converted into B, but teaching is trying to tie the subject into real-world applications—how is this reaction used to make a new sweetener that doesn’t have caloric content, or how it makes the color of Mountain Dew have that weird look to it,” Snyder said.

Such applications are a part of what Snyder has contributed as a co-author of the textbook that is used at UChicago for the introductory organic chemistry sequence. He also has co-authored a text entitled Teach Better, Save Time and Have More Fun, aimed at helping faculty in teaching scientific courses, big or small.

“Being prepared, having thought ahead, having your notes, maybe even practicing things first, that solves most of the mechanical problems and challenges that exist within teaching,” Snyder said.