Faculty who inspire students honored with UChicago teaching awards

University announces winners of Quantrell and Graduate Teaching Awards

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

The University annually recognizes faculty for exceptional teaching and mentoring with 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. See the award recipients below:

Quantrell Award recipients

Graduate Teaching Award recipients

Read more about this year’s winners and their distinct approaches in the classroom below:

Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Albert Bendelac, A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Pathology and the College

Teaching immunology is a family affair for Albert Bendelac. Many of the students who take his introductory course move on to an advanced immunology course taught by his wife, Prof. Bana Jabri, who won the Quantrell Award in 2017.

When asked if Jabri is a tough critic of how he prepares students for her course, Bendelac said: “Actually I get a lot of compliments from her. She knows how I teach and can adjust where she takes over. It’s almost a seamless transition for the students.”

Immunology is an incredibly complex field, and the amount of information students have to process about how the immune system interacts with pathogens can be daunting. Bendelac said the key to keeping undergraduates engaged as he introduces them to the field is to convey this complexity without overwhelming them with details.

“You don’t want to turn them off. You want to excite them and inspire them,” he said. “My mission is to cover all the key aspects of the field but not go into excruciating detail, like knowing the music but not necessarily all the words.”

Claudia Brittenham, Associate Professor of Art History and the College

Claudia Brittenham has built her work on the premise of looking closely—both as an art historian and as a teacher.

Brittenham is focused on the art of ancient Mesoamerica, particularly how the materiality of art and the politics of style contribute to our understanding of images. In her Introduction to Art course, Brittenham helps undergraduates develop skills for looking at visually interesting things—wherever they may find them.

“Whether it’s a work of art in a museum, a monument on the street or an ad that they’re seeing in their web browser, all of these things can be analyzed visually,” Brittenham said. “It’s our conviction that it’s really important that people learn how to look.”

By incorporating hands-on activities, like asking students to examine an ancient form of book called a screenfold codex and calculate how much they owe in taxes, or taking a field trip to view murals in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, Brittenham aims to get her students to think of the images they study in her courses as objects out in the world.

“Prof. Brittenham has the superhuman abilities to animate a classroom or lecture hall, and to communicate the amazing treasure that ancient Mesoamerican art is,” wrote a student who nominated Brittenham for a Quantrell Award. “She fosters and celebrates the multi-disciplinary makeup of a class and makes each student feel worthy of participation.”

Berthold Hoeckner, Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College

It’s no coincidence that music historian Berthold Hoeckner views his classroom as a theatrical space.

“At first, I’m the playwright, director and actor, and the students are the audience. At the end of the quarter, they start teaching each other, and I’m in the audience,” said Hoeckner, who drew inspiration for his classroom model from Chicago Booth Prof. Harry L. Davis.

Hoeckner researches how complex artwork such as film and opera create meaning, and how that meaning is meaningful in people’s lives. He brings this approach to life in “Listening to Movies,” a new Humanities course popular with undergraduates from across disciplines interested in how sound and music contribute to cinematic storytelling.

“Students are very good at noticing things, so they really appreciate a deeper understanding of what they see and hear,” said Hoeckner, who has taught at UChicago for 25 years. “What you see, hear and feel become part of how we apprehend the world and are absolutely crucial in influencing the choices we make. It’s part of what I would call the ‘education of the senses.’”

Hoeckner enjoys helping students grow and develop, and said in each class he always happens to learn something from his students. “It happens even when I’m teaching topics that I know really well. A student offers an insight that would have never occurred to me. I love those moments.”

Maryanthe Malliaris, Associate Professor of Mathematics and the College

Maryanthe Malliaris loves teaching UChicago students because they are in it for the ideas above all else.

“You can advertise challenging, leading-edge courses, and students will line up to take them,” she said, citing the fact that her hardest courses are often taken by students who aren’t planning to specialize in the area. “When you explain to them a great theorem from the literature, or the frontiers of our current understanding, they will listen closely, roll up their metaphorical sleeves and start thinking.”

It’s clear the students find it worth the difficulty. One who nominated her for the Quantrell wrote: “It is not an understatement to say that Prof. Malliaris’ Mathematical Logic course was the most mind-blowing and enriching course I have ever taken.”

A mathematician who studies model theory, an area of mathematical logic, Malliaris said her approach to teaching is to try to explain why she has devoted her professional life to figuring out these problems. “She was in awe of the beauty of the mathematics that she taught, and it showed,” another student wrote. “She would marvel at the mathematical constructions, and showed us just how unusual, beautiful, surprising and remarkable some of the results we derived were.”

She is carrying on a tradition she experienced herself: In the summer after her sixth grade, Malliaris took a summer math class at UChicago coordinated by famous mathematicians Paul Sally and Diane Herrmann, and was hooked. “This class first made math come alive for me,” she said, “and I'm grateful to many exceptional teachers in the years since who reinforced that.”

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Samuel N. Harper Professor of History, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College

A historian of Latin America, Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo has been a scholar for over two decades, including 13 years at the University of Chicago. He has written more than a dozen books and won numerous awards. But none of that would be possible, he said, without teaching.

“The only real mark we are going to leave in this world is in the minds of our students,” Tenorio-Trillo said. “The rest is very important. Yes, we publish books, and we research. But without teaching, there are no great ideas.

“How are you going to test your ideas, if not in the classroom? How are you going to imagine how to synthesize big concepts if you haven’t tried it in the classroom?”

Tenorio-Trillo speaks highly of his relationship with graduate students, whom he compares to colleagues, but said he finds “real fun” in his interactions with undergraduates.

“Maybe I like it better because they mold my mind,” he said. “They are very inquisitive. They have a way of seeing things that I not only don’t have, but I can’t predict. They teach me things. I can catch up with books; I cannot catch up with what’s happening in the world. They make me catch up.”

Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring

Wayne Hu, Horace B. Horton Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the College

As Wayne Hu creates models for how the universe developed over time, he also takes pride in watching his graduate students develop and grow.

“My ultimate goal is to try to get them to think on their own,” Hu said. “When you start a career, there can be quite a shock of doing things on your own. You have to show you can lead the project, not just carry out some project you’re told to do. So I do as much as I can to prepare them for that moment.”

Hu encourages independent thinking at every turn, giving students room to breathe on projects and having them run group meetings—inspired by his time as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study, which hosts weekly lunches in which every person in the department has to present his or her research.

Hu also urges students to collaborate with other professors in the department, and encourages them to branch out from the questions they study in his group.

His favorite part of teaching, he said, “is when the student starts telling me things I don’t know. Each one has their own moment like that. That’s when I know they’re really ready.”

Steven Lalley, Professor in the Department of Statistics and the College

The blackboard in Steven Lalley’s office, one of the possessions he is proudest of, runs nearly the full length of the room. He “rescued” it from a classroom when the Department of Statistics moved from Eckhart Hall to Jones Laboratory three years ago. “Every problem I’ve solved in the past three years, I solved here,” he said.

For Lalley, who studies probability theory, the crux of the entire process is questions. “I try to get students used to how the business works, which is that you keep asking questions until you hit on something interesting,” he said.

This approach works no matter where the students come from (his students often have different academic backgrounds) or where they go (his former students have ended up at Google and other Silicon Valley firms, in academia, and in other industries).

Lalley said that when he was a student, his adviser was always willing to let him bounce incomplete ideas off him until they became clearer. That’s the role that he—and his blackboard—serve for his students now.

“The ultimate goal is to take students to the point where they not only have the tools to answer questions, but also the mental maturity to ask good questions,” he said.

Rochona Majumdar, Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, South Asian Languages and Civilizations

While Rochona Majumdar excels at teaching in the classroom, she believes teaching does not end there. “Graduate students are your colleagues for life,” she said. “Developing long-term intellectual relationships with them is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of being a professor at the University of Chicago.”

Majumdar sees an intellectual network that starts at UChicago and spreads to different parts of the world. The same students she is teaching today will become leaders in the field of South Asian studies tomorrow, she said, and teaching them is a tremendous privilege.

Her favorite moments in the classroom are when graduate students begin to see the nuances of a difficult argument. “Questions drive scholarship,” she said. “I work with students to augment their ability to ask questions and make arguments.

“It is important to learn to think with your knowledge while acknowledging the gaps therein without letting the latter petrify us. My other objective is to hone their writing skills. I’m a believer in constantly writing because the more you write, the more you develop your voice.”

South Asia is central to Majumdar’s academic universe. She supervises students working on different aspects of South Asian history, politics and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. All her students work with at least one South Asian language and undertake archival and fieldwork in the subcontinent.

Jennifer Pitts, Professor of Political Science and the Committee on Social Thought

As the author of two acclaimed books on the history of empires, Jennifer Pitts understands that comparative political theory needs to expand beyond European perspectives. But as someone who studies in English, French and Italian, furthering that sort of research requires collaboration.

That’s one reason why she gets such joy out of working with graduate students, many of whom are well versed in languages like Chinese, Japanese and Marathi. Those sorts of skills allow them to not only conduct original research, but to push political science in important new directions.

“They bring a variety of linguistic competences and intellectual interests that allow them to work on things that I couldn’t possibly work on myself,” Pitts said.

Looking back on her career, Pitts points out valuable mentors who not only understood research from her perspective, but who saw promise in her ideas even before they were fully formed. Those are the traits she now tries to channel while guiding her own graduate students.

“They have their own ideas about where to take their research,” Pitts said. “They pull together the interests and the expertise of their different committee members and push things in really exciting directions that none of us could do on our own.”

Larry Zbikowski, Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College

Larry Zbikowski is always looking for connections in his work—whether exploring how research in cognitive science illuminates musical understanding, or in the classroom, helping students find links that change the way they view the subject matter.

One of Zbikowski’s favorite moments in class was when, in the midst of an introductory course in music theory, a student connected ideas about music Plato set out in the Republic to a lesson on counterpoint.

“Students bring all of their knowledge to their classes,” said Zbikowski, “and it’s the job of the instructor to tap into that knowledge as well as to expand it.”

To Zbikowski, being a good mentor also means being a good listener, and he finds every opportunity he can to draw his students into the conversation. “Professors famously love the sound of their own voice,” he said, “and yet it is only by bringing the widest possible range of voices into the conversation that knowledge truly grows.”

Other times Zbikowski lets his guitars do the talking—either breaking up the day playing his 1975 Gibson L6S in his office, or performing classical guitar for audiences. Zbikowski leaves his students with the lesson that “thinking in music offers a very different way to think about how humans use a range of communicative media to connect with one another.”