May 25, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 17

current issue
archive / search

    The Llewellyn John & Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

    Although from 1938 to 1952 the name was a mystery to the University community, today Quantrell is synonymous with excellence in undergraduate teaching. Ernest Quantrell, who made his anonymous gift six decades ago, created an endowment that was unique in American higher education: a monetary award that would be presented annually to faculty members in recognition of their excellence in teaching undergraduate students.

    His anonymity prevailed for 14 years, but in 1952, Quantrell, a University Trustee, added to his gift and consented to be acknowledged as the donor. At that time, he also named the award for his parents.

    The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching is the nation’s oldest prize given for undergraduate teaching.

    Shadi Bartsch
    Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    “It’s a fabulous honor. I’m thrilled, I’m surprised, and I’m excited,” said Shadi Bartsch[shadi bartsch] by perry paegelow, one of four recipients of this year’s Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    However, Bartsch, Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures, believes it would be more appropriate for the award to go to her students.

    “I haven’t changed my teaching style since I arrived from Berkeley, where I taught for nearly eight years,” explained Bartsch. “It’s the undergraduates at this institution who are truly unusual, and I’ll say that to anybody.”

    An experience that occurred about a week after Bartsch first arrived at the University illustrates the claim. “It was toward the end of Christmas break in January of 1998, and I was on my way to my new office in Classics. I was following behind two undergraduates, and it seemed that they were engaged in a passionate discussion about somebody’s girlfriend,” she said.

    “There was a lot of emotion at stake in the conversation, so I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but it was clear to me that some kind of trauma had occurred and these two young men were hashing it out the best that they could on their way to class. As we finally reached the building, I caught the name of the woman they were arguing about. It was Antigone from Sophocles’ play,” said Bartsch.

    “That was the point at which I realized this is a different kind of place.”

    In terms of what she has experienced in the classroom, her impressions of the student body at Chicago have fulfilled a sense of promise Bartsch said she experienced that afternoon. “Repeatedly, my students here have not only done the work I’ve asked of them; they’ve come to our sessions eager to participate and to engage with the material. I’ve been astonished by their enthusiasm, intelligence and their willingness to make the classroom work,” she said.

    “The undergraduates here just spoil you,” she continued.

    “I think the importance of silence is one of the hardest things for an educator to learn, especially for someone as naturally garrulous as myself,” said Bartsch. She said she has come to understand the value of holding back during discussions. “When you come into the classroom, you’re excited about the material, and you want to share your thoughts,” she explained. “But you have to realize that the things you say aren’t weighted in the same way as students’ utterances.

    “People often talk about the Socratic method,” said Bartsch. “As a classics professor, that makes me smile because we know Socrates was really one of the least successful teachers in the entire history of Western pedagogy. He notoriously failed to convince most of his interlocutors.”

    Bartsch hopes her classes help students understand that the traditional version of antiquity is as much of a construct as any other plausible version. She wants them to recognize that the questions they use to approach a text will shape the answers they get back from it. “Even if it doesn’t always come to the fore, that’s one of the major themes that underlies most of the work I do in the classroom,” she said.

    “I want them to know that there is little per se in the texts we read that forces us to accept any one particular interpretation,” she explained. “If we want to play with the notion of canonicity, all we need to do is ask different questions instead of condemning the answers,” she continued.

    “For the most part, I simply enjoy feeling as if I’m a part of the search for the things that have meaning for us intellectually and ethically,” said Bartsch. “I suppose that’s why I like teaching.”

    David Grier
    Associate Professor in Physics

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    [david grier] by lloyd degraneDavid Grier’s teaching method is like an experimental procedure seemingly too simple to yield profound scientific results, yet it does.

    Grier, Associate Professor in Physics, prepares his notes, checks his math, then gives the best lecture he can in a department filled with excellent teachers. He sounds almost apologetic that he has nothing more flashy to offer as an explanation for being selected as a recipient of a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “My colleagues are a source of inspiration,” Grier said. “They take teaching very seriously, and they take pleasure in teaching well.”

    So does Grier, who has taught eight different undergraduate courses in his eight years at Chicago. His heavy menu of undergraduate offerings is partly by preference. It allows him to scrutinize more thoroughly the fundamentals of physics.

    “It’s absolutely true what they say, that if you want to learn something, you’ve got to teach it, and there’s no better opportunity than teaching it to undergraduates,” Grier said.

    Grier said he began to see the benefits of undergraduate instruction during his postdoctoral fellowship at AT&T Bell Laboratories. His two years at Bell Labs were fantastic, he recalled, and he continues to do research that builds upon techniques he learned there. Grier found himself wondering about how his results were derived, yet his experiments left him with little time to figure it out.

    “I realized that it would probably be much better for my development as a scientist if I were in an environment where people were always asking, ‘How come that’s true?’ And where it was the norm to take the time to answer those questions.”

    Grier noted that neither he nor his scientific colleagues necessarily have all the answers, and that even after centuries of research, physics is still very much a work in progress. That is one reason why he finds the science so exciting.

    “I feel that I can make a contribution, and students should feel the same way,” Grier said. “Very, very smart people have said very, very silly things about very, very simple systems. When you realize that, it’s liberating.”

    Grier’s lectures certainly helped convince physics undergraduates David Altman and Ben Zwiebel that they could make their own contributions. Both now work in Grier’s labs and have produced publishable work for scholarly journals.

    Zwiebel joined Grier’s collaboration with Daphne Preuss, Assistant Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, in an attempt to figure out why pollen grains stick to flower stigmas.

    “A pollen grain lands on a stigma cell as the first step of pollination. If it doesn’t stick, you’re done. No more flowers,” Grier explained.

    The answer goes well beyond the obvious, that the surfaces are sticky. If that were the case, everything would stick to the stigma and there would be no room for the pollen. Preuss’ team has discovered that the adhesive involved is strong and fast-acting, binds only to the target substances and is not based on any protein. A better understanding of the mysterious molecules involved may have many practical applications, according to Grier.

    Altman is part of Grier’s collaboration with a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying the hydrodynamic interactions between spherical particles and their surrounding surfaces. Altman’s task has been to measure the hydrodynamic drag of one sphere floating between two parallel walls.

    “It’s so simple to say and so hard to calculate,” Grier said. The leading answer is a rather inelegant, two-page equation.

    With Altman’s measurements, Grier, graduate student Eric Dufresne and their MIT colleagues can more precisely compare the various competing answers with the experimental data and see which fits best. There is more at stake here than intellectual curiosity.

    Altman’s work has practical implications for Grier’s ongoing research in the study of microscopic materials that spontaneously organize themselves into structures so small they would be impossible to make any other way. Self-assembling materials that manipulate light are likely to be involved in the next generations of communications and computing devices, Grier said.

    Many scientists begin their research days washing bottles. Grier did that himself, and he remembers the experience fondly. “But my feeling is that if you can start out with your own research project, that’s a lot better,” he said. “There are so many good questions attached to these systems that one person really doesn’t have enough time to pursue them all.”

    So far, Chicago’s undergraduates have proven equal to the task.

    “I talk to colleagues elsewhere, and I realize that we are very lucky here,” Grier said. “Even in places where the academic standards are very high, it’s not that common to find the focus and drive of the people who choose to come here. These really are extraordinary undergraduates.”