UChicago announces 2023 winners of Quantrell and Graduate Teaching Awards

The transformative education offered at the University of Chicago begins with the faculty who inspire, engage and inform the students they teach. 

The University annually recognizes faculty for their incredible 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.

Quantrell AwardsLeora Auslander, Michael Gladders, Robert L. Kendrick, Phoebe Rice, James Sparrow

Graduate Teaching and Mentoring AwardsElisabeth Clemens, Paola Iovene, Katherine Kinzler, Bozhi Tian, David Wellbery

Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards

Leora Auslander, the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor in the Departments of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity and History

Prof. Leora Auslander works on how abstractions like “nationality,” “class,” “gender,” and “race,” are made and transformed in the things and spaces we use every day. She shows how the smallest differences—in style, in food, in manners—can lead to inclusion, exclusion and sometimes violence.

This awareness manifests in her teaching style, one that makes sure differences are respected and that listening, as well as speaking, is taken seriously. 

“How do you create a classroom community where everybody exchanges their points of view and learns from each other?” Auslander asked. “Part of my job is to teach people how to do that. There's no reason to assume that when students walk into a classroom, they have any idea how to actually learn from each other.”

This past Winter Quarter, Auslander taught an Urban Studies course in Paris. One class was held in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an art deco building erected for the 1931 Colonial Exposition that was decorated with stereotypical images of colonized subjects.

The building is a source of ongoing debate in France. Should it be destroyed? Preserved or perhaps recontextualized? Auslander posed the same questions to her class.

“We had a discussion for about an hour where all those positions were represented,” Auslander said. “The debate was vigorous, it was engaged, it was utterly respectful.”

“It was everything that I expected college to be,” said one of the student nominators in the class. “I've never been in a class where people actually changed their opinions because of good-faith debate, but it happened in Professor Auslander's class.”

“I can confidently say that hers is the best course I've taken,” said another student. “It is instructors like her that made me excited to come to UChicago.”

Michael Gladders, Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics

When the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics began offering an intensive undergraduate field research course—intended to last for months and conclude in published research—Prof. Michael Gladders jumped at the chance to teach it.

Not all professors might, but Gladders finds reward in long working relationships with students, so that he can find out what each particular student needs.

“My belief is that every one of our undergraduates is capable of doing extraordinary things in their chosen fields,” said Gladders. “Not all of them may grow into that person by sitting in a lecture class. My job is to find out what they need to be extraordinary and give it to them.”

In this course, students spend time collecting data with the Magellan Telescopes. The first-ever class produced a significant finding; major telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, have since observed that particular galaxy.

The first three years of the course have produced four student-led journal papers, with several more in process. This abundant activity means that there are opportunities for many different strengths to shine—from computer programming to data analysis to writing—and for students to acquire new skills.

“[Gladders] encourages and expects questions of all kinds, regardless of whether students worry that their questions are 'stupid.' Instead, he reassures them that each enters with different sets of skills and budding expertise,” wrote one student. “He actively looks to involve each student equally in the research process, with an understanding of how both interpersonal difficulties and systemic inequities may otherwise have a negative influence.”

Gladders hopes the students leave the class with a better understanding of what it’s like to be a researcher—but also a fresh appreciation for the universe.    

“When you are working with the telescope, you are clawing photons out of the sky from the edge of the cosmos and the beginning of time,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary thing.”

Robert L. Kendrick, the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Music and Romance Languages and Literatures

UChicago undergraduates most impress Prof. Robert L. Kendrick by their curiosity and their willingness to state their own perspectives boldly in the classroom.

“It is wonderful to see them develop interests in things about which they had no idea previously,” he said. “One of my students told me that she listens to Italian Baroque opera all the time now, never having experienced it before.”

A key moment in his classroom occurred when his undergraduate students watched the original choreography of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” According to Kendrick, his students came alive through the combination of the ballet’s visual aspects, Modernism, striking musical gestures and overall place in European culture.

Additionally, he admires the intellectual independence of UChicago students and their willingness to make arguments even against the opinions of instructors or source texts.

Kendrick followed an unusual path to his professorship at UChicago. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he became an autoworker and union activist. After a decade, Kendrick decided to return to school, earning his Ph.D. in musicology from New York University.

At the end of each academic quarter, he asks his students to listen with open ears. “Just as they discovered repertories and styles new to them in the classes, so life will bring them new kinds of sounds and historical situations,” Kendrick said. “Keeping an open mind will be of great importance to their future.”

Phoebe Rice, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Prof. Phoebe Rice has been teaching “Topics in Biological Chemistry” to students for more than 20 years, and while the subject matter of the course has changed with new tools and technologies over the years, the one thing she always tries to instill is a fundamental sense of wonder.

“I enjoy pointing out things in nature that I think are just amazing and fascinating, and then showing how they work at a very molecular, under the hood level,” she said.

Rice tries not to be too prescriptive in the course. There is no set textbook; students are expected to rely on supplementary reference materials and books from earlier biochemistry courses. One of her favorite assignments is to give students the coordinates for a protein-DNA complex and have them explore 3D models and figure out how it works for themselves.

“Learning the material is important,” she said, “but really understanding what you can do with it, what its implications are, and how it applies to other material is also very useful.”

“Yes, it's hard work and you do have to just learn facts and figures,” she continued. “But there are fascinating things out there. We need to remember why we got into it sometimes: because it’s just really cool.”

James Sparrow, Associate Professor in the Department of History

Assoc. Prof. James Sparrow, who teaches courses in U.S. democracy and history, says there is something special about the students here.

“It really is true that our students are devoted to the life of the mind to a degree that other peer institutions cannot match. I am struck by the seriousness with which students approach their studies here, their awe-inspiring smarts, and the consistently high level of discourse they are able to sustain in classroom discussion,” he said. 

Sparrow said he likes to try to get students to bring together primary documents and historical interpretation, historical evidence and theory or philosophical questions when they encounter the past in his classroom. 

In most classes, he also makes a concerted effort to model historical thinking by getting students to pose their own historical questions. Discussion is central to most of his teaching, as it is in much of the UChicago curriculum, he noted.  

What he hopes to leave students with is a sense of the distance they have covered in transcending the received opinions that many have of the American past.

“Historical insight is hard-won, often personal, yet it opens out onto public questions of great importance whose answers transcend mere opinion, theoretical formula or mechanical solution. In an age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the kind of judgment it cultivates remains a distinctive foundation for human intelligence.” 

He said he advises incoming students not to be timid or cautious in their course selections. 

“Now is the time to go for it. Disrupting your settled views is necessary to open up new avenues for personal and intellectual growth. Disciplinary skills are necessary, but they are wasted in the absence of informed and expansive curiosity, disciplined imagination and wide-ranging knowledge. Finally, seek out discomfort in coursework and experiences that constructively challenge your assumptions and abilities.

“The whole university is at your feet; carpe diem!”

Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring

Elisabeth Clemens, the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Sociology

Prof. Elisabeth Clemens encourages her students to follow their passion for a topic, even if no one else seems interested. “I often study the seemingly boring, because boring is a technique of power,” said the political sociologist. “If we unpack it, we see how the system works.” 

But along with passion, must come relevance. “Ultimately, we're not writing and teaching just for ourselves,” said Clemens, who recently received the Laing Award for her book “Civic Gifts,” which looks at how philanthropy has shaped U.S. history.

Clemens knows the potential pitfalls graduate students face navigating the academic world. That’s why she spends so much time helping her students avoid them—especially when choosing a research project.

“I really push hard to clarify: Why are you interested in this? Will you still be interested in this five or 10 years from now?” Clemens said.

“Lis’s magic is that she not only pushes her students to be as ambitious as possible in their research, she also helps them deal with the practicalities of carrying out that research,” said one advisee.

This signature blend of practicality, passion and rigor has made Clemens one of the most sought-after thesis advisors in sociology. Despite the large number of dissertation committees she sits on, Clemens always makes time for her students—to prod at their arguments and keep their projects on track for graduation and beyond.

“Lis was there at every crucial moment of my Ph.D., pushing me to be a better scholar and teaching me how to become a successful academic,” the mentee wrote. “These, of course, are related but distinct.”

Clemens hopes her students, many of whom have gone on to tenure-track positions, value what they’ve learned and connections they’ve made regardless of whether they choose to stay in academia. “We want more people throughout all parts of life who bring a rigorous and creative social science perspective on the problems of the world.”

Paola Iovene, Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations

Assoc. Prof. Paola Iovene finds meaning in the details. In her field, modern Chinese-language literature and media, this means paying close attention to interpreting every single character, an attention that she also brings to the analysis of film.

“I’ve always been interested in language and in the stories we construct through language and other media,” she said. “What prompted my research in the first place was the sense that words and narratives can affect people’s lives in significant and unexpected ways. Who gets to tell whose story and how these stories are shaped by constraints and inequalities are still among the questions animating my work.”

The consideration of how difficult it is to craft one’s story and find one’s voice informs her approach to mentoring too. She spends hours in dialogue with her students, helping them articulate their visions and approaches, and engages with their writing as thoroughly and passionately as she does with the Chinese texts she studies.

“Her detailed attention to countless drafts of my writing pushed me to articulate my thoughts more clearly, and to write boldly during a stage when I felt tentative about my scholarly identity,” wrote one advisee. “This is the kind of genuine intellectual engagement with an advisor that one dreams of finding in graduate school.”

Another told a story of a class where the students had struggled with the reading for the week, and instead of moving on, Iovene re-assigned the text for the next class.

“As a student, this sequence of classes taught me how to productively re-read and struggle with a challenging text,” the mentee wrote. “As a teacher-in-the-making, I learned the value of staying with moments of frustration in the classroom, of delving deeper into and even coveting difficulty rather than shying away in favor of convenience and ease.”

Katherine Kinzler, Professor in the Department of Psychology

Prof. Katherine Kinzler studies how language shapes our social identities—including our judgments of each other. But in her lab, Kinzler encourages her students to talk to each other as much as possible. For her, this collaborative approach—“growing the pie”—creates enough resources so that everyone gets a piece.

As a graduate student, Kinzler met Kristin Shutts, now a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and current visiting scholar at UChicago. “It really benefited me and Kristin, as young scientists, that we shared the joys of research,” Kinzler said. “We were able to create more than either one of us could have done by ourselves.”

The longtime friends and colleagues even co-authored an article about ways to promote collaboration in the lab.

“When you come into grad school, these are the people who are going to be your colleagues,” said Kinzler, who also serves as chair of the Department of Psychology. “So, encouraging those strong relationships among junior scholars is really important.”

“Dr. Kinzler is an incredibly generous research mentor,” said one mentee who merged research projects with another graduate student at Kinzler’s suggestion. “She consistently gave her time to hear out my ideas and connected me with people who might support those ideas.”

Another advisee noted that Kinzler was “an advocate and changemaker” for graduate students. “She regularly helped me feel autonomous and capable while steering me towards tractable high-impact projects,” said another mentee.

Kinzler encourages young scholars to also think about the broader impact of their research. Her recent book, “How You Say It: Why We Judge Others by the Way They Talk—and the Costs of This Hidden Bias,” highlights findings from several former students and is written for a general audience. “I'm continually learning and growing from the contributions of my graduate students. And for them, I think having somebody who supports them as a person, and not just as a scientist, can really make a big difference.”

Bozhi Tian, Professor in the Department of Chemistry

Though many don’t think of scientists as creative, it’s important to Prof. Bozhi Tian—both in the laboratory and in the classroom and office.

“He strived to continuously promote a culture of creative thinking,” wrote one mentee. “When stuck on a project, I was often impressed by his ability to turn what seemed like a negative or unfortunate characteristic of my research into a positive one, showing how certain material properties could be seen as beneficial, if one just rethinks the application.”

Tian’s research draws on many different fields to create new and inventive ways to integrate human tissue and synthetic material, such as less-invasive pacemakers powered by light. This means his office is packed with books on topics from chemistry to human physiology to optics, and he encourages students to think across disciplines and to be open-minded.

This is reinforced by his penchant for vivid illustration, expressed in scientific and artistic metaphors and in hand-drawn chalk diagrams. (One student described him as “an absolute wizard with the chalkboard.”) On any given day, he might be explaining kinetic chemistry concepts by drawing mountains and rivers, or describing his fundamental approach to teaching and mentorship by way of a scientific concept known as diffraction.

“If you have a crystal and shine an X-ray beam through it, it creates patterns, and we use that to learn about the structure of the crystal,” Tian said. “Similarly, you can see things about your style reflected through your mentees. This is important, because you have to be aware of the patterns that result from your teaching and improve yourself. I am acutely aware that my journey is an ongoing one.”

David Wellbery, the LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University Professor in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought

Prof. David Wellbery believes that the best moments in class occur when the lecture or discussion brings everyone to the brink of a transformative insight.

“In my seminar on Faust II, we were discussing the final act when I suddenly realized – and the class came to see it with me – that the final act is not one act, but rather three units: a final act of five scenes, then a satyr play (in the tradition of ancient Greek drama), then a choral piece that is no longer drama, but spiritual vision. Seeing that arrangement makes a huge difference in interpreting the work overall.”

Wellbery is teaching a graduate course (with some undergraduate attendance) on Thomas Mann's 1948 novel, “Dr. Faustus.”

When he wrote the novel, Mann was living in California and he had become an American citizen, so Wellbery says there's an argument to be made that it is the greatest “American” novel of the 20th century. The novel is exemplary both for the depth of its moral issues and for its aesthetic intricacy, he said.

It is perhaps the greatest 20th-century rendering of the Faust myth, which reaches back to the 16th century and has in Goethe's two-part ‘Faust’ play (1832) its most important predecessor, he said. Teaching Mann's novel, he argues, affords students access to a major work of modern literature, but also opens a view onto the rich literary, musical and artistic tradition that has grown up around the Faust myth.

Wellbery arrived at his central research interest in Goethe from a lecture on a famous poem by Goethe that he attended while in graduate school. “As it turned out, I vigorously disagreed with the lecturer's interpretation and that disagreement demonstrated to me that, despite the wealth of research on Goethe, I myself had something to say. I later wrote a book about the poem.”

In the nomination letters in support of Prof. Wellbery’s award, many wrote about his wisdom, kindness and support. “I would like to emphasize how much Professor Wellbery genuinely cares about his graduate students,” one noted. “Meetings about my dissertation always included check-ins on my well-being and the general state of graduate student culture in the Department. He encouraged us to rely on each other and lift each other up, while always offering his own support as well.”

Compiled by Andy Brown, Tori Lee, Louise Lerner, Sara Patterson, Emily Rosenbaum and Matt Wood.

A version of this story is published on the University of Chicago College website