May 24, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 17

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    2007 Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching

    By Julia Morse
    News Office

    Winners of the Wayne C. Booth teaching prizes are (left to right) Pascal Wallisch, Patrick Draper, Patricia Firca and Marc Benayoun.
    (Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

    Four Chicago 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 the late Wayne Booth, who was the George Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and the College.

    The Booth Prize parallels the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which recognize the exceptional teachers on the faculty of the College. Students and faculty annually nominate graduate student teachers for the Booth Prize.

    The 2007 Booth Prize recipients are Marc Benayoun, Patrick Draper, Patricia Firca and Pascal Wallisch.

    Marc Benayoun said being a graduate student teacher has been one of the best experiences of his life. “That’s a strong statement—but it’s true,” Benayoun said.

    After graduating from the College in 2004 with a triple concentration in biochemistry, chemistry and biology, Benayoun said he has been able to relate in a “very real, very strong” way to the undergraduate students in his class, which introduces the mathematics that are used in biology.

    “I don’t see much difference between myself and my students,” said Benayoun, who is in his third year in Chicago’s M.D./Ph.D. Program in Computational Neuroscience. “I feel like I am a better teacher to them because of that.”

    Benayoun said he believes his experience teaching during his graduate studies would not have been as enjoyable at any other university.

    “Chicago’s undergraduates are the best and the brightest,” he said.

    Although he has several years of graduate study ahead of him, Benayoun said he knows that wherever he may end up, he plans on continuing teaching.

    “By the time I’m done, I will have been here for 11 years,” he said.

    Before beginning his graduate work, Benayoun counted piano and martial arts as two of his passions. But now, with teaching and his own rigorous course load, he said those things have been put on the backburner.

    “I do my school work, teach and spend time with my wife,” he said. “I will get to the piano and martial arts again sometime, but I really love what I’m doing right now.”

    Patrick Draper said he was not at all expecting to receive a Booth Prize.

    “I don’t make things too easy for my students, which is why I’m a little surprised I’ve been honored with this award,” said Draper, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Physics. “Mainly, I feel that the time will come soon in their careers when no one will want to do anything for them anymore, and so the sooner they can become self-reliant for both motivation and answering questions, the better.”

    On the other hand, Draper said he does not enjoy doing extreme amounts of homework any more than his students.

    “I tried to bring something extra sometimes to take the focus off assigned work—a cute math problem or a way of tying in their material with something more exotic or advanced,” he said. “Or occasionally, a half-hour expository on what they have to fear in the next few years, which they all laughed at and immediately dismissed as gross exaggeration.”

    Draper said he likes to think that being raised by parents who were both teachers had something to do with his becoming a teacher himself, but added that he owes winning a Booth Prize to his students.

    “Ultimately, I don’t think there was anything too novel about my approach,” he said. “I tried to push my class to not accept having to ask a question without first trying to answer it, or obtaining an answer without questioning whether or not it makes sense. Because of this, I think most of the credit goes to my students.”

    Draper noted that each of his students came to class with a strong sense of humor, solid work ethic and thoughtful questions that pushed him to come to class even better prepared the following week.

    Down the road, Draper hopes to continue his career in the academic world, teaching and conducting research.

    Patricia Firca, a graduate student teacher in the Department of Music, has a philosophy for her style of teaching undergraduates.

    “Work them hard, challenge them greatly, but cheer them on along the way,” said Firca, who will receive her Ph.D. from Chicago within the next two years. “The learning process for Chicago students is very important, but connecting to them, encouraging them, rooting them on, those are all crucial.”

    Firca joked that she often hears from students who say she assigns too much work, but it is only because she knows they can handle it, she said.

    “I have faith in their abilities to live up to their own potential,” said Firca.

    As a teacher in Music for the past three years, after coming here from her native Romania, Firca has taught first-year students who have never had a course in music as well as music concentrators who are very well versed in the history of music, composition and music theory.

    “That’s what makes it fascinating for me—teaching all different kinds of students,” Firca said. “They keep it fresh for me because I’m always having to come at it from a different angle or a new angle. The students challenge me as much as I challenge them.”

    Aside from feeling “overwhelmed and excited,” about being named a 2007 Booth Prize recipient, Firca said there is one emotion that dominates all the others.

    “More than any other sentiment I’m feeling right now, I am so very grateful to my students,” Firca said. “It is a privilege and a treat to teach here. Interacting with Chicago students is amazing and humbling—they are truly brilliant.”

    Pascal Wallisch calls his experience as a graduate student teacher in the Department of Psychology “simply great.”

    After graduating from college in Berlin, Wallisch asked his boss at the time, professor Gerd Gigerenzer, head of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, what he should do next. “He told me there was only one true university in the world—the University of Chicago. And now I know that he was right,” Wallisch said.

    Arriving at Chicago on Sept. 15, 2001, aboard the first plane to fly from Germany to the United States after the 9/11 tragedy, Wallisch said he initially thought of his graduate experience as temporary because he arrived as part of a non-degree one-year exchange program with the Free University of Berlin.

    Wallisch said he decided to apply and stay as a graduate student in the Department of Psychology “pretty much as soon as I got here.”

    “After I realized that I was lucky enough to be in the most wonderful, stimulating, challenging academic environment in the world, I stopped thinking about being anywhere else,” he said.

    After six years at Chicago, Wallisch and his wife, whom he met at the University, will be leaving; after his graduation this summer, the couple will relocate to New York City, where he will do research as a post-doctoral fellow in an individual lab at New York University.

    “I have to move on, no matter how much I like it here,” he said.

    At Chicago, Wallisch has taught and worked as a teaching assistant for 14 courses and said that he knows he has grown as a teacher over the last several years.

    “When I started teaching, I thought I already knew how to teach,” he said. “But I realized very quickly that I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Teaching is something that you learn over time—and it definitely did take time.”

    One of the experiences Wallisch calls “tremendously rewarding,” is when he has had to be creative in finding ways to get College students excited about difficult or abstract topics.

    “When we studied stereotypes, I did not simply tell them that stereotyping was wrong, I organized discussions and debates, posing questions like, ‘How would you end racism—with an unlimited budget?’ which really got them going,” Wallisch said. “They learned a lot, and so did I.”

    After his postdoctoral work, Wallisch hopes to serve on the faculty of a major research university, where he can combine his two greatest career passions: teaching and research.

    “Maybe even Chicago!” he said. “I would love to return here someday.”