The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in TeachingBy Josh Schonwald
The awards parallel the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which recognize distinguished teachers on the faculty.
Earlier this spring in a mid-level calculus class, Gautam Iyer wrote an equation–Euler's Formula–on the chalkboard. Heads bobbed and eyes widened when they saw Iyer work through implications of the Swiss mathematician's work, which demonstrated a point about infinite series. "It's like magic, absolutely unbelievable," said Iyer, adding with a wry smile, "they were blown away."
Blowing away his students is for Iyer, a Ph.D. student in Mathematics, no accident. It is not unusual, and in fact it is a goal with a pedagogical purpose. Iyer wants to give his students a glimpse of mathematical genius.
Math, Iyer believes, should be more than learning a formula, following a formula, turning in an answer. He tries to incorporate the history of math, the story behind the formulas and the genius of math as a way of spreading his wonder at "the beauty of the logic."
A native of India who was sparked by a high school teacher who appreciated the "beauty of math," Iyer is planning his dissertation work to focus on an aspect of fluid dynamics.
He has great respect for the seriousness of his students. There are three levels of calculus–130s through the 160s–at Chicago. Iyer teaches the 150-level classes, which typically comprise a wide range of students from the sciences and humanities with a solid background in math. "They work hard," said Iyer. "They're very interested in learning. They ask tough questions. They'll challenge you."
While serious in purpose, Iyer likes to create a "fun, easygoing environment," a "casual" classroom where he seizes any opportunity to clown around. He refuses to be called "sir," insisting instead that students call him Gautam or his nickname, G.I.
Gina DeGiovanni, a second-time Booth award winner, wants her students in the Biological Sciences to approach an article in Scientific American with the same critical eye they use to read Plato or Henry James.
DeGiovanni, the former director of the Biological Sciences Writing Program, is uniquely qualified to teach scientists the "close reading" skills required for texts in the humanities; the second-year medical student also is a humanist. A 1995 graduate of the College with an A.B. in English and Italian, she's working on her Ph.D. in English Language & Literature.
In her full-time teaching job from Fall Quarter 2001 through Winter Quarter 2003, DeGiovanni directed the writing curriculum and supervised the teaching assistants for 14 sections of the biology Core courses.
She was especially challenged by the fact that few of the 600-plus students in Core Biology each year are science concentrators–they generally are first- and second-years who are on a humanities or social sciences track.
Teaching non-science concentrators to write about science is, DeGiovanni said, often simply about unlocking existing potential. Most Chicago students are good writers who know how to present an argument, how to critically consume information–but sometimes they do not naturally apply these skills to science texts. DeGiovanni said students need to develop confidence to approach science and sift through scientific jargon as they would with other content.
A typical DeGiovanni assignment would ask students to critically review a story in the popular press. For instance, a student would review a New York Times story on agricultural genetic engineering or the book Genome by Matt Ridley. The student must check the claims by reviewing primary sources. "A lot of times they find out that the science is far more complicated. There's a tendency toward oversimplification in the media, and I want Core Biology students to feel empowered to be critical consumers of science in the media."
As a writing tutor of non-science students, many of whom are merely fulfilling their requirements, DeGiovanni said it is most satisfying to watch a student with little interest in science become mentally absorbed in a subject. For example, this past year she had a visual arts concentrator develop a fascination in the neurology of sensory perception. "It's really gratifying to see someone who isn't interested become excited about science."
Quiet students cannot hide in the corners of Raymond Black's Humanities Core class, and the act of thinking will not buy students any time. "You will talk," Black said, with a chuckle, "no matter where you sit." Even when Black thinks a person is composing a thought, he may call on the student. "I reserve the right to call on students at any time."
A fourth-year Ph.D. student in English Language & Literature, Black, who teaches "Readings in World Literature," does not call on students for punitive purposes. "Some people are shy, others aren't," he said. "I want to create an atmosphere where everyone participates equally."
For Black, humor and patience help students feel more comfortable. He is distinctive for his Vincent Price imitation ("I like to say 'evil' a lot," he said) and for his ability to point out the erotic in Othello and Madame Bovary.
A native of the Bronx in New York and a graduate of California State University in Sacramento, Black's specialty is 19th-century American and African-American literature. His dissertation will focus on the work of the author William Wells Brown, the first African American to publish a novel, titled Clotel, or the President's Daughter.
Black is no stranger to the classroom. He has taught or tutored at both the college and high-school levels. He has even read stories and changed diapers as a teacher of preschoolers in the Head Start program.
Diapers and potty breaks aside, Black said teaching at the University is unlike any other teaching experience he has had. "There's always a student who has more knowledge about a particular book than I do." When he was teaching Who Killed Palomino Molero, for instance, a book by the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, one of his students who had lived in Peru was able to explain the differences between the English and Spanish translations. "It was a learning experience for me."
Can the government supply a minimum level of welfare? Can it nationalize health care? How will voters react? How will interest groups react? How will the courts react?
John Pfaff traces his interest in these questions and the workings of government to elementary school. As a kid growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Pfaff created a model government.
A 1997 graduate of the College in Economics, Pfaff started a Ph.D. program in Economics at the University. After one year, it became clear to him that his interests intersected law and economics. Since 1999, he has been earning a dual degree in those two areas. In his research, Pfaff is exploring two public policy areas involving crime: the role of shame as punishment and the factors that have caused growth in the prison population.
While teaching "Economics of Public Law" for the past two years, Pfaff has had a chance to spread his enthusiasm for government and questions of public choice to students in the College. Students learn how to evaluate political systems through empirical analysis of the implications of the legislative process.
"It can be almost frightening," said Pfaff of a good class. In fact, his favorite moment as a teacher is when students are not only taking down notes and comprehending his lectures, but when they are twisting and turning information, asking tough questions. "This is when teaching can be exhilarating," said Pfaff.
Pfaff said he tries to create a welcoming atmosphere for vigorous debate in the classroom. He wants students to interrupt him at any point to ask questions. He also wants them to listen to his lectures so they can think about what he is saying and participate.
To free students from note-taking, Pfaff has posted his lecture notes online for the past two years. "It's a small change," he said, "but I think it helps. The class seems to talk more."