Faculty honored for excellence in graduate teaching

The Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring recognizes tenure-track and tenured faculty in the Biological Sciences, Divinity School, Humanities, Institute for Molecular Engineering, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences.

Alison James, Associate Professor in Romance Languages & Literatures and the College

Alison James’ teaching style has evolved in the 12 years she’s been at UChicago.

“I used to think of myself as someone who is supposed to know things and somehow transmit knowledge to the students. That’s really shifted.

“I don’t think about my job as just communicating everything I’ve learned. It’s about formulating questions, carving out space for a collective inquiry and asking questions I don’t know the answers to,” she said.

James has been teaching 20th- and 21st-century French literature since 2005. Her courses, which examine the French literary avant-garde with a particular focus on writer Georges Perec, are constantly works in progress, driven largely by the questions and conversations that arise from her students.

“Teaching is always surprising,” she said. “I still learn a lot from the students. I go into a classroom with a syllabus, I think students are going to respond in particular ways to the texts, and they always surprise me. That’s what is so exciting about teaching here.”

And if James wasn’t in the classroom? She said in the future she might just try to take a page from her research subjects. “I could see myself writing,” she says. “Perhaps one day I’ll try to write fiction.”

Jason MacLean, Associate Professor in Neurobiology and the College

While it would be easy for a busy scientist to settle on a routine format for the courses he teaches, Jason MacLean changes them every year.

“Frankly, I’m never satisfied, because I think you can always do better,” he said.

MacLean learned to constantly re-examine and critically evaluate his work while studying with his PhD advisor, neurologist Brian Schmidt at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

“Each time I thought that I had a solid result, Brian would poke holes in my conclusion and would force me, either through argument or additional experiments, to convince him of its validity,” MacLean said. “While difficult in the end, it made me a much better scientist.”

MacLean builds this spirit of challenging assumptions and conclusions into both his laboratory and his undergraduate courses in neuroscience. He wants graduate students in the lab to be open-minded and not be constrained by the tenets of neuroscience. In his undergraduate course, he guides students through contemporary literature and asks them to critically evaluate the data and conclusions.

He wants students to take these critical thinking skills and apply them toward whatever field they decide to pursue.

“Whether they remember anything about the brain or not,” he said, “it’s a great vehicle to teach them to think critically and evaluate evidence.”

Joseph Masco, Professor in Anthropology and the College

A scholar of many interests, Joseph Masco’s courses deal with subjects ranging from the global environment to science and technology to mass media and national security.

But one of Masco’s greatest joys is watching his graduate students grow through research and begin to approach their topics in new ways. “There are these moments in the collaborations with students,” Masco said, “where you’re moving away from training and toward thinking together about something that’s shaping the current world in a serious manner.”

From master’s students who are refining their skill sets to doctoral students who are spending years on original work, the end goal is “that they’re original thinkers,” said Masco, “and that they’re able to move across very different discursive worlds, and communicate the insights of their research.”

Masco also enjoys learning via the independent research of his students, who work in many regions of the world and tackle projects he would enjoy investigating on his own, if he had the time.

“Each doctoral student in anthropology has unique experiences in the field and builds a one-of-a-kind ethnographic archive. I learn a lot about contemporary conditions from these encounters,” he said, “and that is really the secret and great pleasure of the whole operation.”

Julie Orlemanski, Assistant Professor in English Language & Literature and the College

When Julie Orlemanski began her PhD at Harvard, she was conflicted about becoming a Modernist or a Medievalist. But one thing that helped her make a choice was the encouragement from her advisors to simply explore.   

“They always treated me as someone who’s self-determination they took very seriously,” she said. “That has influenced my style of graduate teaching and mentoring.”

Orlemanski said thanks to her own experience, she has great respect for her students.

“I’m in a position to facilitate intellectual exchange, but I really think of grad students as peers,” she said.

Since joining the English Department (as a Medievalist), Orlemanski has worked to encourage her graduate students to develop a practice of writing, to be creative and intellectually engaged, and to write without dread.

“It’s a really crucial part about how one can position oneself to be a successful scholar,” she said.

While in grad school, Orlemanski also took part in Occupy Boston—an unlikely inspiration for how she leads class discussions.  

“I took away a lot of thinking about how one facilitates conversation among people coming from lots of different knowledge positions,” she said. “How do we bring people’s different insights to bear on a shared conversation? That’s not something that inevitably happens, and it takes work.” 

James T. Robinson, Professor of the History of Judaism and the College

In 14 years at the University of Chicago, James T. Robinson has taught more than 25 different courses in the field of medieval Judaism.

“One of the great things about UChicago is the freedom to teach anything I want, and often I don’t teach the same courses twice,” he said.  

From “The Jewish Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages” to an experimental course he plans to teach next year on the history of popular culture called “Jewish Superheroes,” Robinson has found plenty of spaces to share his wide research interests with students.

But in all those varied classes, one thing remains the same.

“I give the same advice to graduate students when they are deciding on general exams or dissertation topics: Follow your heart, do what you really enjoy doing: Don’t pay attention to the market, for the market is fickle.

“More than anything I want students to have fun, to laugh, to enjoy learning, and to end the quarter wanting to learn more about the subject,” he said.