The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in TeachingBy Josh Schonwald
Four graduate students have been awarded the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The prize was established in 1991 in honor of Wayne C. Booth, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and the College. Students and faculty members submit nominations, and the winners 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. The 2005 Booth Prize recipients are Jim Cooper, Eduardo de Almeida, Kenneth Harris and Emmanuel Saadia.
If Jim Cooper sees that a group of students is struggling to identify muscles in the leg of a rabbit, he will walk them through a dissection. If a group of his students is having trouble naming the bones on a shark skeleton, he might ask Dean Thorsen, a fellow graduate assistant, to lead the dissection. Sometimes Mark Westneat, Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology, will solve a vexing problem, and other times, the students will solve it themselves.
Cooper believes the one-on-one connection between students and faculty in Comparative Vertebrate Biology, the class in which he was a teaching assistant that garnered him a Booth Prize, made the course successful. With less than 15 students, Cooper, Thorsen and Westneat were able to individualize the instruction in this lab course, which examines many anatomical systems, such as the nervous, digestive and muscular systems, of a wide range of animals.
A doctoral student in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, Cooper does the majority of his research in Westneat’s lab at the Field Museum, where Westneat is curator of the Fish Collection.
Cooper’s own research interest is the evolution of skill biomechanics in coral reef fishes. During the past several years, he has traveled the globe in pursuit of damselfishes. By studying changes in the damselfishes’ jaws, Cooper believes he can unlock clues about the evolutionary changes in coral reef ecology.
Cooper, who holds a B.S. and M.S. from the Florida State University, loves his classroom work and hopes teaching will be an important part of his continuing academic career.
Eduardo de Almeida
How can you create a space where second-year students and advanced graduate students can simultaneously grow and learn to ask better questions? That was the challenge facing Eduardo de Almeida, a Ph.D. student in English Language & Literature.
His class titled The Posthuman Condition, which explores the convergence and emergence of media in conceptions of the human condition, had a range of students of varying experiences and aptitudes. He encourages students to push their thinking and challenge themselves. De Almeida sought to create an experience he calls “apprehension.” “Apprehension means both ‘understanding’ and ‘reservation.’ Such is the nature of intellectual inquiry,” says de Almeida. “Often engagement can be limited by the kind of doubts articulated, the kinds of questions asked, so one of my goals is to teach students how to ask better questions.”
To promote such an environment, de Almeida believes in “close reading as well as reading and re-reading” and the importance of “making explicit the implicit.” The class read and re-read texts as a group, and he required that they take a mid-term oral exam, which forced students to think on their feet and articulate their ideas.
Honored for his work in the classroom, de Almeida also is working on a project that uses Web-based technology to support the teaching of media theory. He hopes the project—called Media HyperAtlas, an immersive environment for modeling the relationship between media types—will be available to media aesthetics instructors and students. “The pedagogical implications are legion,” says de Almeida.
When he was trying to explain one of Heraclitus’ arguments to a group of undergraduates several years ago, Kenneth Harris used a prop. He brought in a cookie and asked his students: “Can you take a bite out of the same cookie twice?” That experience led Harris to the idea that, “Even a simple cookie can make an abstruse problem more concrete and important.”
Years later, in a new discipline and a different teaching environment, Harris is still applying a basic pedagogical philosophy. A teaching assistant in Computer Science, Harris believes the key to being an effective teacher is “creating a cycle of listening carefully and communicating with students to create a continuous feedback loop, which reinforces the students as they explore the subject.”
A Ph.D. student in Mathematics who is working on a dissertation about computability theory, Harris does not believe a simple one-way flow of information from teacher to student is effective. Whether he is teaching introductory Unix programming, or more advanced algorithms or compiler design, Harris always begins by brainstorming about creative ways to communicate concepts.
“Sometimes, a very simple mechanism can inspire an abundant flow of ideas,” Harris says. For example, in a programming lab he introduced students to simple coding—simple cellular automata—and led them through a range of complex behavior these programs can exhibit. “The program was easy enough to write, and once written, it opened up a world to explore. It was very pleasing to see the range of effects people were able to produce.” A former researcher at Argonne National Laboratory who expects to graduate next year, Harris says, “I’m likely hooked on academia for life. Teaching undergraduates at the University of Chicago is a special privilege,” he says. “They are tenacious and inquisitive and outstanding young scholars.”
One of his students won a Fulbright scholarship, another won a Truman scholarship and a third won a yearlong scholarship to study in East Asia. And several students in his class landed coveted internships. “I was lucky,” says Emmanuel Saadia, a Ph.D. student in History. “I had an unusually motivated, talented group of students.”
Even at a university with many talented, highly motivated students, Saadia had a special experience. Not only were students in the Human Rights Program intellectually interested in the subject they were studying, but they also were passionate about activism.
Channeling this energy required a special approach. “I was very hands-off,” says Saadia, who also has taught European Civilization. “I didn’t have to fight them. My role in the class was to make them feel at ease.”
A Paris native whose own research focuses on political economy and agronomy during the French Revolution, Saadia taught two Human Rights classes, one that dealt with the French Revolution itself and the other that was part of the Human Rights core curriculum.
Saadia says that much of what he has learned as an educator comes from modeling the practices of his own mentors and instructors, especially his dissertation adviser Jan Goldstein, Professor in History. “I try to listen, to be very attentive to what students are thinking, to help them come to their own conclusions and develop their own ideas.”
If there are moments of humor in Saadia’s classes, if there are amusing stories about the Frankfurt school or ironic quips about Marx, it is not strategic. “I just try to be myself,” says Saadia. “I like to tell stories and to joke.” But Saadia, who will continue to teach at Chicago next year as a postdoctoral student in the Human Rights Program, says that what he likes most about teaching is the opportunity to mentor students and encourage them to pursue their passion, “whether it be scientific research, law or even history,” he says.