UChicago instructors, grad students honored in 2022 for exceptional teaching

The University of Chicago has honored nine instructors and graduate students for their exceptional work as teachers. Nominated by undergraduates in the College, these winners demonstrated the ability to push students to think beyond the classroom, and to share their disciplines in exciting ways.

Anne Beal, Benjamin Callard, Trevor Hyde, John Kennedy and Veronica Vegna have been awarded the Glenn and Claire Swogger Award for Exemplary Classroom Teaching, which recognizes outstanding teachers with College appointments who introduce students to habits of scholarly thinking, inquiry and engagement in the Core Curriculum—the College’s general education program.

Ian Bongalonta, Karlyn Gorski, Peishu Li and Marguerite Sandholm have been named the 2022 winners of the Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching, awarded annually to University of Chicago graduate students for outstanding instruction of undergraduates. The prize itself was established in 1991 in honor of Booth, PhD’50, the late UChicago faculty member who was one of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics.

In addition, the University has awarded 10 faculty members with the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards and the Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.

Read more about the Swogger Award and Booth Prize recipients below.

Glenn and Claire Swogger Awards

Wayne C. Booth Prizes

Glenn and Claire Swogger Awards

Anne Beal, Senior Lecturer and Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts

When Anne Beal was a college student in the 1980s, it was typical at her institution for professors to maintain a formal and somewhat distant relationship from undergraduates.

As a first-generation student who said she found college life baffling and overwhelming, this approach played a role in her not feeling supported. That experience shaped her view that providing empathic support to students makes for better classroom learning.

“I think I have a distinctive approach to class discussion, which is to really listen to what each student says and to find value in each comment made,” said Beal, co-chair of the “Self, Society, and Culture” course series.

She began teaching in the College in 1999 as a sociocultural anthropologist with research interests in consumerism, class, national identity and gender in Jordan. Teaching Freud in “Self, Society, and Culture” in the UChicago Core Curriculum, however, she felt increasingly drawn to the study of psychoanalysis.

“[Psychoanalysis] provided an approach to questions of human meaning-making that was definitely distinct from my anthropological training, yet in many ways complementary to it,” she said. “It is not an exaggeration to say that teaching in the Core changed the trajectory of my life, as it was the impetus for my training as a psychoanalyst.”

Beal is currently teaching “Self, Society, and Culture” in the Social Sciences Core, as well as “Thinking Psychoanalytically: From the Sciences to the Arts” in the Big Problems course program. She said she appreciates how Core brings together students across multiple disciplines, which fosters great classroom discussions.

“I like to leave my students with a message of possibility, with the insight that even though there are great social challenges ahead, we are adequate to the task if we continue to strive and work together,” Beal said.

Benjamin Callard, Instructional Professor, Department of Philosophy

Benjamin Callard learned that he could build a career out of philosophy while in college, but his passion for the subject developed even earlier when he read Plato’s Cave allegory in a high school journalism course.

“I got indignant at Plato and wrote a 50-page paper showing why Plato was wrong about everything, but I had a nagging (and correct) feeling throughout the writing of it that my refutation was hopelessly inadequate, and that Plato was operating down in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean, and I was just skimming on the surface,” he said. “And I wanted to know how not to do that.”

In the College, Callard has taught courses in a variety of areas within philosophy: epistemology, political philosophy, ethics, philosophy or religion and more. He credits an undergraduate professor of his, Palle Yourgrau of Brandeis University, for teaching him much of what he strives for as an instructor.

In his courses, Callard values the flexibility philosophy provides to adjust a syllabus or class focus as needed. “It's more important to bring out the wonder and mysteries of the subject, even if this means you cover less material,” he said.

Callard also values student input and discussion in his courses at the College.

“There are smart, serious students everywhere, but there is definitely a sensibility among many of the students here—an intellectualism which somehow manages to be simultaneously self-conscious and earnest—which makes teaching here a great pleasure,” he said. “I also find that students here are willing to grapple with an idea they find ethically dubious or politically problematic—more so, I think, than at other institutions.”

Trevor Hyde, Dickson Instructor, Department of Mathematics

Trevor Hyde's passion for mathematics began when he was 16 years old. Fifteen years later, Hyde now enjoys sharing that passion for his subject with students.

In the College, Hyde has taught several undergraduate mathematics courses, including most recently algebraic number theory. In the classroom, he aims to give his students perspectives they won't find in any text.

“The students here are incredibly talented, hardworking, and diligent, which allows me to be ambitious in designing courses,” he said. “That's a lot of rewarding fun for me.”

Hyde's approach to teaching is influenced by formative experiences from his time as an undergraduate. He recalled one such moment from a reading course with an ever escalating workload.

After weeks of increasingly long and difficult assignments, he recalled, “I came to my professor's office, dispirited, after a fruitless all-nighter, to admit that I'd failed.”

“The professor was not disappointed,” Hyde said, “Instead, he assured me this was inevitable and intentional—he wanted me to see how far I could go if I really pushed myself. I learned a lot of mathematics and a lot about myself. As a teacher, this lesson on the value of high expectations is never far from my mind.”

Hyde's favorite memories of teaching in the College are when his office is full of students just before an assignment is due: “Everyone is engaged with the problems after struggling with them for a week. I get to guide them to the insight they need and watch them have the satisfying ‘Ah ha!’ experience in real time. The mathematics feels alive in moments like that.”

John M. Kennedy, Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences Collegiate Division

After 25 years of teaching physiology and biophysics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, John Kennedy, who completed a postdoctorate fellowship in the cardiology department at UChicago, came back to Hyde Park seeking more hands-on teaching experiences in an undergraduate setting.

Kennedy said he has been impressed by the intelligence of the UChicago students he now teaches, and their passion for learning.

“Here at UChicago, the students are really interested in learning for the sake of learning and are more open to wide-ranging topics,” said Kennedy, who left the medical school as director of physiology education. He now serves as director of undergraduate research for the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. “I enjoy talking to students in labs and in office hours to really tackle the issues that give them the most trouble. I also like to hear about the students' ambitions and plans for the future.”

Kennedy primarily teaches “Human Physiology” for biology majors, but he also runs physiology labs as well as metabolism and exercise labs. In his teaching, he makes a concentrated effort to make the small details relatable, which is crucial in a fact-based subject like physiology.

“I talk to the students about muscle cell death and the maladaptive regeneration that takes place in patients with muscular dystrophy, or how molecular events in the heart allow us to perform exercise and mutations in these same molecules can lead to heart failure,” he said. “I try to make the facts come alive by giving as many examples as possible.”

As someone who changed his career path, Kennedy encourages his students to value the process of their education, and look beyond the grades they receive in his class towards a lifetime of learning. “Education is ongoing and life-long and you never really know what twists and turns you might have along the road that makes up your career path,” he said. “It's about showing up and doing your work on a daily basis.”

Veronica Vegna, Senior Instructional Professor in Italian

Veronica Vegna teaches Italian language and culture courses, particularly Italian cinema. This year, Vegna’s cinema course explored migration, gender and sexuality, and various regional representations, while next year it will focus on women and the mafia. The latter formed the basis of her doctoral dissertation and is a topic she became invested in while working as a journalist in her home city of Palermo.

In all of her courses, conversation and collaborative learning are essential.

“Learner-led discussions are central to my courses,” said Vegna, who is director of the Italian Languages Program and coordinator of the Languages Across the Curriculum initiative. “I strive to create a friendly and welcoming environment where students can reflect collectively about social issues through the course content, while contributing to shape the class itself.”

After receiving her education in Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, Vegna has been able to grow and reflect on her own pedagogy.

“My college experience was very different from UChicago, particularly when I studied in Italy. The learning process there left little space for questioning and focused primarily on acquisition of knowledge,” she said. “When I studied in the U.K. and, later on, when I completed my doctoral studies in the U.S., I appreciated the conversational structure of some of the courses and the sense of agency I felt.”

One of the aspects Vegna values most about teaching is collective discovery through conversation. In this process, she finds herself learning right alongside her students.

“I find myself in the privileged position to explore my own culture with outstanding learners, who are eager to reflect critically on their identity and society through a cultural lens different from their own,” Vegna said. “My hope is that what they learn in my courses will contribute to their growing process as individuals wishing to make positive changes to society.”

Wayne C. Booth Prizes

Ian Bongalonta, Department of Chemistry

Ian Bongalonta first became interested in theoretical chemistry as an undergraduate student while working in electronic structure theory. Later on, performing chemical simulations and learning about the mathematics and physics behind predicting chemical phenomena inspired him to pursue a career in academia. He is now a teaching assistant for the Honors General Chemistry course sequence for first-years in the College.

“Just like the molecules we discuss in thermodynamics, the ‘energy exchange’ between me and my students is definitely the most fulfilling part of the course,” he said. “While guiding everyone through difficult concepts, we have fun, productive conversations which help everyone grow as both students and scientists.”

Currently working with advisor Prof. Gregory Voth in his P.h.D. studies, Bongalonta is broadly interested in quantum dynamics and statistical mechanics and their applications to biophysical systems. Bongalonta emphasizes to his students that STEM fields are just as much an art as they are a science.

“While mastering a tricky integration technique might be necessary for learning kinetics, the skill of thinking outside of the box or synthesizing your own methods are indispensable for making new knowledge,” he said. “Your creativity is as important as your math. Perfect practice makes perfect!”

Beyond his enjoyment of teaching chemistry material, Bongalonta said it has been gratifying to talk with his students about undergraduate research and watch them join research groups.

In a nomination letter for the Booth Prize, one former student wrote that Ian was always helpful in and out of office hours, despite having an intense course load himself. “He tries actively to make the class enjoyable by relating with his students, and generally bringing humor to lab and discussion while explaining topics clearly,” the letter said. “Overall, Ian creates a thoroughly enjoyable learning environment despite the difficulty of the class.”

Karlyn Gorski, Department of Sociology

Karlyn Gorski’s interest in education and research goes back to her time as an undergraduate student in the College, where she studied public policy. She credits Chad Broughton’s instruction on ethnographic research in particular with shaping her future work.

“I was so lucky to have Chad Broughton as an instructor in the College because he always encouraged me to get to know people and listen closely to their stories,” Gorski said. “Sometimes this meant letting my research go in unexpected directions, or pursuing leads that may or may not work out.”

Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Gorski spent time working with Chicago Public Schools, teaching in India, and finally coming back to the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. program in Sociology. Upon her return, she began teaching classes on education and research methods. She is currently teaching “Race, Ethnicity, and American Public Schools,” a course she designed for the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies major.

In the fall, she will be starting as an assistant instructional professor at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Gorski values student-directed learning as a major component of her courses, including independent research projects and small group discussions. She also enjoys working with Public Policy students for their thesis research presentations at the BA Symposium. She works diligently to foster students’ passions and love of learning in all of her instruction, encouraging students to follow their interests wherever they lead.

“I always try to leave students with the message that their interests and passions are valuable, even if they worry others might see them as niche or too rooted in personal experience,” said Gorksi, who is also an Institute of Education Sciences Pre-Doctoral Fellow. “My research has all grown out of things I find joyful—like kids selling chips in school, or students finding a feeling of belonging through extracurricular activities. It’s been a delight to get to watch my students pursue their own interests.”

Peishu Li, Biological Sciences Collegiate Division

Fascinated by the diversity of life as documented by the fossil record, Peishu Li sought a career in vertebrate paleobiology and evolution.

Since graduating from Duke University with a double-major in Earth sciences and biology, he continues to take an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Currently at UChicago, Li is writing his thesis on the evolution of the hyoid apparatus in mammals, with a focus on how anatomical variation in this system may impact swallowing physiology in different groups.

Along with researching, Li has served as a teaching assistant for two classes. “Mammalian Evolutionary Biology” presents a broad survey into the diversity of living mammals and their extinct relatives, while “Biological Evolution” covers a wide range of topics in evolutionary biology, from the origin of life to speciation and mass extinction. Li believes it is important to leave room for students to make their own mistakes.

This became even more apparent during the cat dissection in “Mammalian Evolutionary Biology.” Spending extra time outside the class to help struggling students, Li ensured everyone came away with a strong understanding of the necessary anatomy.

“I tried to emphasize that the real takeaway is not for them to finish with a perfectly dissected cat, but rather use the process of dissection as a vehicle to familiarize themselves with general principles of anatomy and muscle physiology,” he said. “I hope being comfortable in making mistakes and having the confidence to learn from them is something I can leave the students with even when they have long forgotten all other factual information from the class.”

To Li, working with undergraduate students has been a rewarding experience. “Their intellectual curiosity and ability to rise to the learning challenge are inspiring to watch,” he said. “Both classes I have taught so far have offered a tremendous amount of freedom for different students to explore their interests and share them with their peers and the instructors. At times, it feels like we are on a learning journey together rather than us passively feeding information to the students.”

Marguerite Sandholm, Department of Philosophy

Marguerite Sandholm was originally pursuing a degree in neuroscience as an undergraduate student, when the philosophy classes she was taking completely changed her outlook.

She came to realize that the broad questions which initially drew her to neuroscience, such as the nature of consciousness and the mind’s influence on human action and behavior, were not only limited to the physical sciences, but could also be approached philosophically.

From there, she became particularly concerned the philosophy of mind, particularly self-knowledge, self-reference and the nature of the self. These subjects, along with epistemology and ethics, are now her primary areas of academic interest.

“I had teachers who appreciated me just the way that I was, as a reserved, quiet student, and actively encouraged me to continue in philosophy,” she said. “I try to carry that same inclusive spirit into my classroom and make it a space where we appreciate differences, assume the best of each other, and recognize everyone’s contributions as valuable.”

Over the last year, along with her P.h.D. studies, Sandholm has worked as a course assistant for epistemology and ethics classes taught by Instructional Prof. Ben Callard, and is currently a course assistant for “Self-Creation as a Literary and Philosophical Problem,” taught by Assoc. Prof. Agnes Callard.

In the classes Sandholm helps teach, she aims to form an intellectual community, and make the classroom a place where students are free to learn, sharpen each other’s arguments, make mistakes and be themselves.

“We like to incorporate joy and humor to our discussions while maintaining intellectual depth and rigor,” she said. “We assume the best of each other and encourage and appreciate everyone’s valuable contributions to discussion. Over the course, we become better philosophers together and we have fun doing it.”

—This story includes contributions from Andy Brown, Emily Ehret, Lily Levine and Molly Morrow, and was adapted from stories first published on the College website.