UChicago announces 2021 winners of Quantrell and Graduate Teaching Awards

Awards recognize faculty for exceptional teaching, mentoring amid unique year

The classroom has long been the foundation of a transformative University of Chicago education. This past year, however, students have found inspiration even without traditional classroom settings—guided by faculty who have navigated unusual circumstances with empathy, curiosity and a spirit of collaboration.

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:

Quantrell Awards

Graduate Teaching and Mentoring Awards

Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Sally Horne-Badovinac, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and the College

This year, a review session for Assoc. Prof. Sally Horne-Badovinac’s “Fundamentals of Developmental Biology” course ran an hour and a half long. “I missed my next meeting,” she recalled, “but it was the most fun I’d had all quarter!” 

This kind of active dialogue with her students is what Horne-Badovinac values most about teaching.

A developmental biologist by training, Horne-Badovinac strives to inspire the same sense of awe she felt when she first learned about the subject, which is the science of how cells divide and differentiate to form tissues, organs and organisms. “I remember it was a mind-opening experience,” she said.

Horne-Badovinac hopes to elicit similar feelings from her own students: “I want them to come away with a sense of wonder about development. I want them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful.’”

After 11 years teaching “Fundamentals,” Horne-Badovinac is still thrilled to see students understand difficult concepts like how different genes operate within a pathway. To tackle such topics, she makes her lectures especially interactive, which appeals to the inclinations of UChicago undergraduates. “I know everyone says this, but it’s true,” Horne-Badovinac said. “They are smart, engaged and they really want to learn.”

She captures the imagination of her students in part by putting material in context, and by pointing out current open questions in the field—a way of teaching that one student described as “storytelling.”

“It’s not just what we know, but how we know it,” Horne-Badovinac explained. “I want to provide places where a student could get involved if they felt inspired to.”

Patrick Jagoda, Professor of English and of Cinema and Media Studies and the College

For Prof. Patrick Jagoda, learning and play should be synonymous. As a game designer, Jagoda sometimes asks his students to play a video game before class, and then discuss it from many angles, from form to player experience and historical context. 

He particularly loves teaching “The Stanley Parable,” a philosophical game that asks a player either to obey or resist a narrator, while raising important questions about choice, authority and consent in a digital environment.

“Every time I teach this game, students majoring in disciplines as diverse as psychology, economics, philosophy and gender studies contribute so many thoughtful theories and interpretations,” said Jagoda.

The approach is popular with students, whom Jagoda also works with through the Weston Game Lab—which fosters collaborative game development—and the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which creates games about public health and for underrepresented youth in STEM fields. 

In a nomination letter for the Quantrell award, one former student wrote of Jagoda: “In the classroom, his passion for his work is palpable, and he presents his insights into the realm of digital media in a cunning, easy-to-follow argumentation so casually and kindly presented that the audience has to truly engage with his material to go beyond simply marveling at his conclusions.”

Beyond the world of gaming and critical inquiry, Jagoda encourages students to approach learning in ways that allow them to enjoy the process of discovery. Being willing to take risks and fail creatively, he believes, can help yield more original ideas.

“There is a lifelong joy,” Jagoda said, “in discovering and creating new knowledge, connecting seemingly unrelated fields, and using what you learn to make the worlds around you more just and better for other people.”

Jonathan R. Lyon, Associate Professor of History and the College

When teaching undergraduate students, Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Lyon tries to find readings that will excite students. “If I pick up something and I’m bored reading it, then I assume my students will be bored reading it,” he said. 

A historian of medieval Europe, Lyon often teaches in the European Civilization Core sequence, in which he asks students to read works by Galileo Galilei, who argued that the sun—rather than the Earth—was at the center of the solar system.

Lyon then puts Galileo on trial in class, assigning students to be judges, prosecutors or defenders. The idea is to get students to understand the mindset of 17th-century Europeans by asking them to adopt the perspectives of the time period.

“That’s one of the discussions that’s consistently generated lively conversations among students,” Lyon said, “both because Galileo is fun to read and because it’s such a big question to grapple with, in terms of clashing conceptualizations of the universe.”

Students agree: “Prof. Lyon’s gift for teaching and the enthusiastic engagement he inspires in his students create a very special learning environment, in which I have personally grown so much as a medievalist,” one wrote in a letter nominating him for the Quantrell. 

Lyon also teaches a course on comparative kingship, and one on medieval masculinity through the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Though his goal is to help students understand historical context, his dialogues with students inform his own scholarship as well.

“On the last day, I always thank my students,” he said. “Because the questions they’ve asked have inevitably pushed me to think about some aspect of the course material in a new or a different way.”

Ada Palmer, Associate Professor of History and the College

The key concepts Assoc. Prof. Ada Palmer hopes students take away from her classes are a sympathetic attitude toward the past, and a more plural sense of who has power in history. When analyzing actions of past peoples that seem baffling or foolish, she said it is important to remember that our predecessors were living in a different world than we are now.

“I think that empathy across time carries over to empathy across culture in our present, making students more willing to try to understand the different mindset behind an action that seems strange,” she said.

Empathy is central to her popular course, “Italian Renaissance History: Wars of Popes and Kings,” in which Palmer has students work together to simulate the papal election of 1492. By shaping a simulated history with their own actions and choices, students experience how power is always both plural and partial—how even the humblest clerk had the power to affect world-changing events while no one, not even popes and kings, had complete power to control them. Role-playing, she said, helps students step into other perspectives and understand others’ actions from the inside. In a nomination letter for Palmer, a former student described the election simulation as “the single most incredible experience I had ever been involved in for class.”

Palmer also emphasizes the importance of empathy in helping students combat their own self-doubt. In addition to teaching the human flaws and faults of historical figures, she has been open about her own struggles with chronic pain, which stems from a combination of Crohn’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and other factors. These conversations, she said, help promote visibility for the disabled community.

During the pandemic, Palmer has started classes by mentioning some of her own recent errors, be it misspelling a word or missing a deadline.

“Discussing our weaknesses is immensely powerful, especially when someone in the position of power there at the front of the classroom is willing to break the ice and reveal weakness first,” she said. “No one on Earth is operating at 100 percent right now—and it means the world to students to have the person at the lead in the Zoom call recognize that directly, and admit that they aren’t at 100 percent either.”

Blase Ur, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Computer Science and the College

Asst. Prof. Blase Ur ascribes his teaching philosophy to a musical experience: playing bass in his high school jazz band. His band teacher believed in “giving students the opportunity to take the reins” from the very start, Ur said, allowing even freshman students to work their way up to leadership roles quickly. In his courses on computer security and privacy, Ur goes beyond technical instruction to encourage his students to debate, find their own research interests and make connections between computer science and broader society.

“I really value engagement with the world and its practical problems, demonstrating how fundamental tools of computer security, privacy, and ethical computing apply to each week’s headline news,” Ur said. “Ultimately, I try to convey that real-world problems often don't have clean solutions. They require approaches at the intersection of coding, math, design, law, philosophy and communications. I think it’s critical for students to see holistically how the modern world works, particularly the role of computation and technology.”

As with jazz, that approach requires improvisation. In courses such as “Introduction to Computer Security” and “Ethics, Fairness, Responsibility & Privacy in Data Science,” Ur constantly refreshes his curriculum with example topics pulled from the headlines—wading into a recent debate about controversial research on operating system security or, last spring, critiquing the design of contact tracing apps for COVID-19.

In both in-person and virtual environments, Ur also values co-teaching because he can debate these issues with a colleague, modeling healthy intellectual disagreement for his students and demonstrating that many foundational topics in applied computer science are not yet settled.

“Blase teaches each of his classes with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject,” a group of his students wrote in a nomination letter. “This helps students engage in discussion of the questions and ethical quandaries he poses far beyond the classroom. He spends countless hours designing brand new assignments that introduce students to crucial tools used in industry, while inspiring us to think about problems more deeply.”

—Visit the College’s YouTube page to watch Quantrell Award winners discuss their experiences teaching UChicago undergraduates.

Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring

Daniel Arnold, Associate Professor in the Divinity School and the College

“One of the unique qualities of the University of Chicago is the amount of intellectual space allowed here to work at developing the kind of deep understanding that can only result from lots of trial and error,” said Assoc. Prof. Dan Arnold. That’s how he approaches not only his own research, but how he works with students.

As a philosopher working with first-millennium Sanskrit texts, many of which have not previously been translated in English, Arnold knows interpretation is a meditative and painstaking process. “For close readers of philosophical texts, it’s a familiar experience to find oneself unsure exactly why a challenging passage is unclear—for example, whether there is some problem of a philological sort, or whether you’ve rightly read the text only not grasped what sense it makes for it to say what it does,” Arnold said. “Especially given the bright, motivated students we’re privileged to teach here, it’s invaluable for them to see their teachers struggling to resolve such a difficulty—to see not just what the answer is, but what it looks like to struggle to arrive at one.”

Arnold believes in giving students the space to make their own discoveries. His classroom style is intended to steer the conversation only gently, using what one student called “an almost magical ability to lead his students through a coherent argumentative arc.”

But in their nomination letters for Arnold, students also described the depth of support they received over the course of their studies: not only the careful and thorough attention paid to each piece of submitted writing, but also for the personal and intellectual development of students inside and outside academia. “He genuinely cares for the minds of those whose lives come to be entwined with his own for a time,” wrote another student.

Persis Berlekamp, Associate Professor of Art History and the College

Last quarter, Assoc. Prof. Persis Berlekamp was searching for a way to challenge her students intellectually while also establishing a genuine connection with them virtually. So, she asked the students in her Authorities of Knowledge in Islamic Art course to watch the Turkish Netflix drama “Ethos.” Their task was to find an object in their home that resonated with the show, and present it on the first day of class.

“Everybody took it very seriously, it brought us directly to significant issues, and I learned so much about all my students. They really opened up to the course and to each other. It was fun,” she recalled. Berlekamp has also asked students in another course to choose a different relevant artwork to use as their Zoom background every week, creating new opportunities for discussion.

“Students here are open to letting professors experiment with their teaching, because they appreciate the spirit of learning as a live endeavor,” Berlekamp said. It’s one of the things she loves about UChicago, where she teaches about the history of Islamic art and architecture.

“My plan is usually to give students the keys, but to know when to tug the wheel,” she said. As an adviser, her favorite moments are those in which she sees graduate students presenting their own work with confidence and purpose. But she’s also committed to supporting them as people.

“For our final meeting before graduation, Persis …. [rode her bike] to campus just for our ten-minute chat,” one former student recalled in a nomination letter. “After nearly a decade of graduate school, [she] remains the only professor who consistently recognized a person behind the scholarship.”

Daniel Fabrycky, Associate Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College

It’s common for scientists to hold weekly meetings with the members of their own laboratory. But from the first days of his teaching, Assoc. Prof. Dan Fabrycky wanted to make sure his graduate students experienced a wide range of perspectives. To him, the most important weekly meeting is a joint meeting of the half-dozen professors and their groups who study exoplanets—the planets orbiting distant stars in other systems—rather than a narrowly focused group meeting. 

“Most of what we do is theoretical,” he explained, “so it’d be easy to go deeply into one narrow area—we need to do that in our weekly one-on-one meetings. I wanted to counterbalance that by also regularly interacting with people working on the same topic, but with different techniques.”

Fabrycky’s work to develop a common set of expectations and understandings between graduate students and their advisers has become a model for his department. He also serves as a departmental mentor at large, as part of a program which offers students a chance to talk to professors who are not directly serving on their advising committee. “That can be really valuable just to give students a space where they can ask questions if they’re worried about their relationship with their adviser, or just to get a different perspective on research and career questions,” he said.

But students who nominated him for the award said that Fabrycky never condescends. “He has, from day one, treated me as an intellectual equal,” one wrote.

“I think it’s important for a student to have developed something on their own that they can call their own,” Fabrycky said. “With each student their strengths and passions are different, and that will drive them to do something new on their own. I want them to each to have something they can say, when they leave the University, ‘This wouldn’t have happened without me.’”

Daniel Morgan, Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the College, Chair of Cinema and Media Studies

For Prof. Daniel Morgan, one of the challenges of graduate teaching was unlearning the idea that there was a “correct” model to follow. 

“You go in thinking that the way you were taught, or how you wanted to be taught, is what works best for everyone,” he said. Instead, Morgan notes, you quickly discover the importance of being responsive to the very different kinds of needs that students have as they move through graduate education.

For Morgan, who chairs the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, this approach is crucial to the “push and pull” dialogue that makes the University of Chicago a fantastic place to teach, with a “wonderful intellectual community” of graduate students who shape important conversations and research directions.

In their nomination letters, many students noted the care and compassion Morgan demonstrates—not only in his approach to developing their scholarship, but also in terms of personal support.

“It’s about giving graduate students the tools they need to do work that they feel matters, to write and produce in a meaningful way,” Morgan said. “During the pandemic, that can differ from traditional models of graduate pedagogy; but it is just as foundational for intellectual work.”

Also key, said Morgan, PhD’07, were the different lessons he learned from his own advisers: Profs. Emeritus Tom Gunning and Yuri Tsivian, and the late Prof. Miriam Hansen.

“They showed me how to take my work seriously, but also to take pleasure in it—and in teaching what I care about. Along with providing analytical methods, it’s important, I think, to model the enjoyment in what we do,” Morgan said. “I learned from them how to have a kind of humility before texts, especially films—to respect their own intelligence—and to convey the joy of what I find in that encounter.”

Monika Nalepa, Associate Professor of Political Science and the College

Why would Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, voluntarily return to Russia after his near-death from poisoning—only to be promptly arrested by the regime he was trying to topple? 

According to Assoc. Prof. Monika Nalepa, it was a puzzle ripe for theoretical modeling. Nalepa, who studies comparative politics, authoritarian regimes and transitional justice in post-communist Europe through the lens of rational choice theory, put the question to her students in a virtual lesson.

“It was really incredible,” she said. “After half an hour of deliberation in breakout rooms, we came very close to writing a model explaining why somebody would actually get on the plane and go back.”

Nalepa loves to have her finger on the pulse, both of events around the world and of intellectual life at the University of Chicago. One of her favorite things about the University, she says, is the way people ask, “What are you doing now?” rather than dwelling on past achievements.

That up-tempo atmosphere doesn’t preclude academic camaraderie. Nalepa dedicates her time to supporting graduate students—women especially—and helping them make connections with and learn from each other. In letters nominating her for the teaching award, five students mentioned the collaborative dissertation meetings that Nalepa organized every week.

“Those group meetings have helped me become a better adviser,” Nalepa said, “because I was able to keep track of what my students were working on almost every day. But they also facilitated cooperation among my advisees: They will sometimes get feedback from one another without even involving me, and I will be surprised at how much progress has happened. Discovering the community aspect of advising has been really important.”

—This story includes contributions from Andy Brown, Louise Lerner, Rob Mitchum, Amanda Parker and Max Witynski.