May 23, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 16

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    Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Four graduate students have been selected to receive the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The winners are (left to right) Mridul Mehta, Mathematics; Justine Lee, Immunology; James Reid, Philosophy; and Jonathan Hand, Committee on Social Thought.

    Four outstanding graduate student teachers have been awarded Booth Graduate Student Prizes for Excellence in Teaching. The prize was established in 1991 in honor of Wayne Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College. The winners, who are nominated by students and faculty members, each receive a $2,000 cash award.

    The awards parallel the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which recognize distinguished teachers on the faculty.

    Jonathan Hand, Committee on Social Thought

    For Jonathan Hand, a good teacher is “a cross between stand-up comic, priest and lawyer for the author being discussed––who is, more often than not, dead, and hence in need of good representation.” Hand, a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought, has spent this year teaching Classics of Social and Political Thought while finishing his dissertation, a comparison of the political philosophies of Montesquieu and Tocqueville.

    Hand describes his teaching approach, a combination of lecture and discussion, as “the traditional quasi-Socratic Chicago style,” albeit with the addition of electronic mail.

    Before class, he sends out a list of discussion questions, and once a week his students write responses to the texts they have read. “Chicago students, at their best, are wonderful,” Hand said. “You set them an impossible challenge, such as throwing the whole of Plato’s Republic at them the first week they arrive. They come back to class after burning the midnight oil and pose you some really hard and fundamental questions.”

    While Hand is excited about the learning that happens in the classroom, he is equally gratified by the academic conversations that spill over into coffee shops and dorm rooms. “I am happy that students here spend as much time as they do discussing things outside of class,” he said. “Talking about great works of philosophy or literature is one of the best ways to make real friendships.”

    Justine Lee, Immunology

    Justine Lee, a third-year in the Medical Scientist Training Program, describes her teaching style as “structured, fast and interactive. I strongly believe that all good lectures start with a good outline and end 15 minutes early.”

    This quarter is the second time Lee has taught Immunobiology with Jose Quintans, Professor in Pathology and the College. Most of her students are biology concentrators. “I am always impressed with the breadth of knowledge that they have as well as the interesting, thoughtful questions that they pose,” she said.

    Lee has completed two years of medical school and is currently researching apoptosis, or programmed cell death, with Marcus Peter, Associate Professor in the Ben May Institute for Cancer Research. When cells do not die, pathological conditions such as cancer or immunodeficiencies can result, Lee explained.

    Her interest in basic science began during her undergraduate years at the University of California, Los Angeles, where, she said, “I had a fantastic time studying the biosynthesis of yeast ubiquinone.” Later, she became more interested in medicine and decided “immunology seemed like the perfect match for the two.” After two more years of lab work and another two years of medical school, Lee will earn an M.D. and a Ph.D.

    Mridul Mehta, Mathematics

    “I think math is beautiful,” said Mridul Mehta, who has taught introductory, intermediate and honors calculus to undergraduates. “My teaching philosophy is to try to show my students what is so beautiful and how it is so beautiful. Math expands the part of the mind other subjects don’t get to.”

    Mehta, who comes from Bombay, India, first fell in love with math as an undergraduate at Colgate University. “One of the criticisms leveled at math is that it’s dry,” he said. “I never found it so. To me it’s fascinating. There’s much more in it than just formulae.” Mehta’s area of research is algebraic geometry, specifically the geometry of Higgs bundles. He hopes to complete his Ph.D. in spring 2003.

    Many of Mehta’s students take calculus to satisfy their Core requirements, which means their previous experience with math––and their attitude about it––varies enormously. “Some of my students had math teachers they loved, while others had teachers who made them hate the subject,” said Mehta. “But most want to learn. Chicago students don’t resist that much.”

    Once Mehta has convinced his students to be excited about math, he loads them down with assignments. “I give lots of homework. There’s no shortcut to success.” In return, his overworked students nominated Mehta for the Booth Prize. “I’d like to thank my students for giving me this honor,” he said. “It means a lot to me.”

    James Reid, Philosophy

    James Reid has taught Philosophical Perspectives on the Humanities and Introduction to Phenomenology and is currently teaching a course on Heidegger’s early lecture courses in order to shed light on the development of views that found their way into Heidegger’s Being and Time. He hopes to complete his dissertation, tentatively titled Heidegger and the Problem of Nihilism: Beyond Enlightenment and Romanticism, next spring.

    As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, Reid initially was interested in mathematics and natural science, but realized “the questions that occupied me most were not susceptible to rigorous scientific treatment,” he said.

    He finally decided to major in philosophy. Among his most memorable teachers, Reid cites Case Western’s Chin-Tai Kim. “His range was truly remarkable. His lectures were unrehearsed, delivered without notes, penetrating and impressively organized. He set a high standard for me.”

    While Reid said he does not have “a methodical approach to teaching,” he prefers to run his classes as informal seminars and tries to get to know his students so he can make the discussions relevant to their concerns.

    “I try to avoid oversimplification and neat interpretations, the sort of thing you tend to find in introductions to philosophy. Perplexity in the face of a difficult text is better than confidence in a superficial understanding,” he said.

    “This sometimes frustrates those students who would like to know what, say, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Plato’s portrait of Socrates in the early dialogues is all about in the space of a single quarter,” said Reid. “But genuine understanding develops slowly, and, as Glaucon observes in the Republic, the proper measure for listening to philosophical discussions is a whole life.”