The Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in TeachingBy Sarah Galer
Four graduate students have been awarded the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
The prize was established in 1991 to honor the late Wayne Booth, who was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and the College.
The Booth Prize parallels the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which recognizes exceptional teachers on the faculty of the College. Students and faculty annually nominate graduate student teachers for the Booth Prize.
This year’s winners are Chris Conidis in Mathematics, Robert Fong in the Pritzker School of Medicine, Tom Lockhart in Philosophy and Katherine Turk in History.
Some of Chris Conidis’ fondest memories at the University are of teaching undergraduate students, whom he found to be incredibly talented and easy to teach.
Conidis, a native of Canada, is in his fifth year of graduate studies in Mathematics, focusing on computability theory, a branch of mathematical logic that studies the fundamental nature of mathematical structures.
In teaching his College mathematics classes, his primary goals are to make the main concepts stick and convince students that math is not scary.
“Math can be scary without the proper perspective. Most of my effort as a math teacher goes into giving my students the proper perspective on the material, so that they can focus their energies in the right places. Otherwise, learning mathematics can be very frustrating, especially to those with less interest than most math nerds.”
Conidis most recently taught Number Theory and Geometry.
“These courses deal with some of the most fundamental and beautiful results in all of mathematics,” said Conidis. “Although most of the material I taught this year is several hundred, or, even thousands of years old, it still ranks among the most beautiful and interesting in the field.”
For the past nine years, Robert Fong has been teaching undergraduate classes like Human Developmental Biology and Organic Chemistry and says he is grateful for the experience.
“It’s often observed that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else, and I’ve certainly found that to be the case,” said Fong. “My own knowledge and understanding of the sciences has been enhanced and deepened by each teaching experience I have had.”
Currently finishing his M.D. in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Pritzker School of Medicine, Fong received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, where he focused on the detection and synthetic uses of chemically modified RNA. This summer, he will begin his residency in Anesthesiology at the University.
Fong said his primary goal as a teacher is to demystify the subject he is teaching for his students.
“I attempt to do this by modeling a way of thinking about science that emphasizes conceptual understanding of fundamental principles and their application, rather than rote memorization of disjointed facts or formulaic ‘plug-and-chug’ approaches,” explained Fong.
“My ultimate hope is that I can provide students with tools and approaches that they can apply in the future for learning science at any level, whether in graduate school or medicine.”
Tom Lockhart, a seventh-year doctoral student in Philosophy, is nearing completion of his dissertation on German philosopher Gottlob Frege’s thoughts on the relationship between language, logic, thought and the world.
Lockhart says that when it comes to students in his classes like Elementary Logic, he tries to teach them how to assess the quality of an argument for a particular view, and not merely focus on the view itself.
“Learning philosophy is not about learning what a string of dead blokes believed, but about figuring out how to construct, critique and use an argument,” said Lockhart.
“Philosophy is interesting because the arguments of the great philosophers are so powerful. Even when a philosopher has a crazy view, it can be extremely hard to figure out where their argument is wrong.”
Lockhart has embraced the maxim that you cannot explain something clearly unless you truly understand it yourself. When he becomes stumped by how to present a concept to his class, he uses his struggle as a teaching tool.
“That is exciting in philosophy: it turns out that the path from A to B is not at all obvious. Sometimes that insight will allow me to restructure the whole lecture around the problem of getting from A to B. And students are usually excited about trying to help me figure out how to get from A to B. Sometimes I come away thinking I’ve learned more than the students.”
Katherine Turk is in her fourth year as a Ph.D. student in History, and she is writing her dissertation on feminist employment rights activism in post-war America. She teaches 20th-century U.S. history with a focus on gender, labor and race, including this year’s classes Alma Mater: The History of Women at the University of Chicago and History of American Feminist Thought.
Turk praises Chicago undergraduates as bright and thoughtful, saying that the real challenge is to make them relate to the material she is introducing.
“My objective was to help students to consider the workings of gender difference, feminist critique, hierarchy and power as manifested in their future course materials, the world beyond the university and students’ own lives,” said Turk.
“I’ve found that encouraging students to consider the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in a historical moment, rather than trying to simplify or distill the issues at hand, can engage students far more deeply than when an instructor feeds students his or her predetermined answer.”
Turk cites her teaching experience as having challenged her to reexamine the question her dissertation seeks to explain.
“Teaching has motivated me to be a more thoughtful historian who both clarifies and complicates the past,” said Turk. “In instructors, the mature, intellectual and analytical undergraduates at Chicago deserve nothing less.”