UChicago instructors, grad students honored for exemplary teaching

Swogger Awards, Booth Prizes given to exceptional instruction of College undergraduates

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.

Navneet Bhasin, Rachel DeWoskin, Jessica Kirzane and Lucas Pinheiro 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.

Silas Busch, Frank Gao, Sandra Park and Gregory Valdespino and Germán Villegas-Bauer have been named the 2021 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 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, UChicago recently 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

Glenn and Claire Swogger Awards

Navneet Bhasin, Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences Collegiate Division

Since high school, Navneet Bhasin has been interested in how humans contribute to the biological world and are, in turn, affected by it. After studying microbiology through her undergraduate and graduate years, she further pursued that interest through applied biological sciences research at Harvard University and Boston University.

In her biology courses, Bhasin teaches students the methods and skills needed to find biological solutions to challenges in fields ranging from medicine to forensics. 

"If you can identify problems, my classes help you develop the tools to find solutions for them," Bhasin said. "Thinking outside the box helps drive innovation. Finding an interdisciplinary approach is key in this interconnected world of exploding information."

While the switch to remote learning over the last year curtailed access to the traditional lab setting, it allowed Bhasin to teach using materials found in the home, which she said was a huge success. 

Students in her summer "Biotechnology for the 21st century" class were tasked to discuss a fermentation process, which increases foods’ shelf life and improves digestibility, using ethnic family recipes.

"This adaptation allowed us to design new procedures for experimentation which were less technology-intensive and used items readily available in the home," Bhasin said. "Students learn best when they can relate to the content and what they are learning has a practical application."

"They tend to learn it easier and it sticks around longer because it is relatable," she added.

Rachel DeWoskin, Associate Professor of Practice in the Arts, Department of English Language and Literature

Rachel DeWoskin took a nontraditional route to the University of Chicago. After spending her twenties in China, where she worked as a consultant and actress following her bachelor’s at Columbia University, she came back to the U.S. to study poetry and translation as a graduate student at Boston University.

Upon completing her master’s, DeWoskin realized she was as passionate about prose as poetry, and has now written five novels, in addition to a poetry collection and a memoir about the years she spent in Beijing. Her interdisciplinary writing background helps her encourage students to bring "kaleidoscopic" perspectives to projects they read and create in her courses.

"We explore how projects take their best shapes and the useful intersections between genres," she said. "These investigations in my own work, of what makes fine writing powerful, propulsive and moving, inform my conversations with students about published work, their work, and the world."

As a student, DeWoskin’s favorite professors not only taught from the frontlines of their own research, thinking, and writing, but also asked students why the literature they wrote and read mattered. 

In her own classroom, she poses those same questions to College undergraduates.

"I try to help students shape their own questions, in class and in their work, deepening nuance and wonder while polishing their writing until it’s as precise and beautiful as possible," she said. "UChicago students are determined and brave, willing to do the difficult thinking, creating, and revising (and to take the sorts of artistic risks) that make books matter."

Jessica Kirzane, Assistant Instructional Professor, Department of Germanic Studies

Jessica Kirzane didn’t begin studying Yiddish until after her junior year in college-when she was a summer intern for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts-but it didn’t take long for her to get hooked.

"I became enamored not only with the literature and culture itself, but especially with the community of scholars and activists that surrounded it," said Kirzane, who earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University. "It was something I wanted to be a part of and make my mark on."

She is now the only Yiddish language instructor at UChicago and teaches all levels of the language, from beginner language courses to advanced literature seminars. 

Her particular areas of focus are the representations of race, gender and region in American Yiddish literature. She also works as a translator with an emphasis on translating women authors who wrote in Yiddish. 

Regardless of if she’s teaching in-person or virtually, Kirzane works hard to cultivate a warm, trusting and open environment where students feel free to engage positively with each other. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has established a reading buddy system in her Core classes. 

"I wanted to give them a space where they could make a friend from class and could work through the class material without the intimidation or top-down feeling of having the instructor present," she said. "Students were lonely, and I am so glad that I was able to help them connect with each other."

Lucas Pinheiro, Teaching Fellow, Social Sciences Collegiate Division

As an undergraduate, Lucas Pinheiro took a year-long class on the classics of social and political thought, which served as his first introduction to political theory.

Two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in political science later, Pinheiro is now teaching a similar course in the Social Sciences Core in the College: "Classics of Social and Political Thought."

"While teaching in Classics, I have been able to impart to my students the value of reading classic texts that are often challenging and not immediately appealing to everyone enrolled in my classes," Pinheiro said. "My favorite part of teaching in the Core is also the most rewarding: to help intellectually curious students develop into self-reflective thinkers, clear communicators and generous collaborators."

In his classes, Pinheiro works to provide students with the interpretive and analytical skills necessary to engage not only with complex political concepts, but also with the complex political world. 

To that end, he aims to teach students to view disagreement not as a sign of misunderstanding, but as an essential aspect of critical thinking. 

"I end class on the same note that I began: by encouraging students to develop a relationship to reading and learning driven by curiosity, patience, attention to detail, and-above all-an openness to perspectives that might be at odds with their own," he said.

Wayne C. Booth Prizes

Silas Busch, Department of Neurobiology

Before coming to UChicago, Silas Busch earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and philosophy from Bard College. Now a doctoral candidate in neurobiology, Busch works in Prof. Christian Hansel’s lab investigating how individual neurons and whole neural circuits function to encode learning and memory in mice.

Passionate about the intersections of neuroscience and philosophy, Busch helped Prof. Peggy Mason develop and teach a new undergraduate course entitled, "Ethics Through a Neurobiological Lens." The course took an experimental philosophy approach to ethical topics inspired by neuroscience research, such as how to define death and the ethics of neuroenhancement, the targeted improvement of cognitive abilities. 

For Busch, teaching undergraduates has transformed the way he understands his research.

"The fearlessness of my students is inspiring," Busch said. "They have been unafraid to take a stance on an issue, to challenge others respectfully, and-most impressively-to change their position."

"Across subjects, memorizing material only goes so far. You have to be willing to express ideas, be wrong, and learn from others through conversation," Busch added. "Learning is quite experimental in that way, and a creative blend of scientific and philosophical approaches can be applied to so many scholarly pursuits."

Frank Gao, Department of Chemistry

Born in Beijing, Frank Gao spent his childhood and undergraduate years in California before becoming a doctoral candidate in chemistry. He previously taught a year-long sequence of courses for "Comprehensive General Chemistry," which explores topics such as physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry and quantitative analysis.

When teaching challenging scientific concepts, Gao encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking among his students.

"I try my best to connect the concepts to applications in bioengineering and material science," he said. "As research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, keeping an open mind to ideas from other disciplines not traditionally associated with one’s main area of training will allow more innovative projects to be developed."

As an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, Gao studied biosynthetic chemistry and theoretical chemistry. Now, he aims to combine elements from statistical mechanics and single-cell biology to understand how cells differentiate.   

"I enjoyed interacting most with my students who are some of the most talented and driven individuals I have met," said Gao. "They are constantly trying to improve academic performance, develop a deeper understanding of course material and become more comprehensive scholars." 

After completing his Ph.D., Gao hopes to continue teaching chemistry and inspire students in underserved communities to pursue scientific research.

Sandra Park, Department of History

A graduate of the College, Sandra Park, AB’13, specializes in religion and politics in modern Korea, East Asia and the transpacific U.S. empire. As a doctoral candidate in history, Park has previously been a teaching assistant for Chinaand Korea-focused courses in the "Intro to East Asian Civilizations" sequence. She is currently teaching a self-designed course on the Cold War, religion and religious freedom in East Asia as a graduate lecturer for the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights.

In each of her courses, Park has drawn heavily from primary sources to help students engage with the subject. "And I learn from my students, who help sharpen my own framing of these sources with their incisive questions," she said.

"I enjoy fostering critical thinking in my history courses," Park added. "Many students arrive with an understanding of history as a descriptive narrative, but I like to encourage students to ask generative questions that disrupt dominant understandings or explore gaps in the literature."

Park’s research examines Christianity and citizenship in wartime South Korea. Her dissertation focuses on North Korean refugees and prisoners of war who sought South Korean citizenship during the Korean War.  

"I encourage my students to sharpen their argument-driven and evidence-supported writing so that they can carry these tools to other classrooms and beyond the University," Park said. "I hope that by the end of the term, my students feel more empowered to draw on these skills in a variety of contexts."

Gregory Valdespino, Department of History

A doctoral candidate in history, Gregory Valdespino focuses on the modern history of France and West Africa. This winter, Valdespino taught "Home and Empire: From Little House on the Prairie to Refugee Camps," a course about the global history of imperialism and domestic life since the 18th century.

Valdespino’s passion for researching and teaching history has only grown since he began his graduate education at UChicago.

"I’ve really enjoyed UChicago students’ curiosity and their enthusiasm for exploring complex ideas with me and their fellow students," Valdespina said. "I’ve consistently had classes where students push discussions far beyond what I expected, helping me see texts I’ve read several times in a new light."

Valdespino is particularly interested in public history-historical work directed at audiences outside of academia-and has worked with Chicago-based organizations involved in historical research, including the Haitian American Museum of Chicago and the French Heritage Society of Chicago.

"I believe that bridging the divide between academia and the general public is vital to making historical research that helps people understand their relationship to the past and imagine the kinds of futures they want to create," Valdespino said.

Germán Villegas-Bauer, Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics

Germán Villegas-Bauer knows that a subject like microeconomics can be a challenge to learn. While teaching "The Elements of Economic Analysis II," Villegas-Bauer makes sure to encourage participation and use real-life examples to explain challenging concepts.

"I try to use intuition as much as possible, instead of just mathematical formulas, to explain abstract concepts and economic behaviors from real life. I highly encourage students to think that way, and I prepare my exams with that in mind." he said.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Villegas-Bauer arrived at UChicago to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. For his research, he has investigated a number of topics within political economy and finance.

"In one paper, I analyzed how the change in the electoral system in Argentina affected electoral outcomes," said Villegas-Bauer. "In another, I used textual analysis to compute the sentiment of speeches by firm managers and I investigated how they affect stock returns."

After he graduates this year, Villegas-Bauer will work for the International Monetary Fund, where he will help countries implement better macroeconomic policies.

"Argentina has had tons of macroeconomic crises," he said. "Because of that, I have always been interested in better understanding them and in designing policies to help economies avoid them, grow and develop."

-- Adapted from stories first published on the College website.

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