May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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    The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

    Although from 1938 to 1952 his name was a mystery to the University community, today the name Quantrell is synonymous with excellence in undergraduate teaching. Ernest Quantrell, who made his anonymous donation six decades ago, created an endowment that was unique in American higher education: a monetary award that would be presented annually to faculty members in recognition of their excellence in teaching undergraduate students.

    His anonymity prevailed for 14 years, but in 1952, Quantrell, a University Trustee, added to his gift and consented to be acknowledged as the donor. At that time he also named the award for his parents.

    The Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching is the nation’s oldest prize given for undergraduate teaching.

    [bertram cohler] by jason smith

    Bertram Cohler, William Rainey Harper Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division

    By William Harms
    News Office

    For Bertram Cohler, who has won his second Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the essence of good teaching begins with respect for students.

    “I learn a tremendous amount from what the students say in class, and I want them to know I consider that important,” said Cohler, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division.

    Cohler teaches six to eight courses each year in the College, including the Social Sciences Core sequence Self, Culture and Society.

    In teaching the class, Cohler avoids lecturing and instead tries to engage his students in a discussion of the big ideas put forth by the authors of the texts being studied.

    “The big question I always have for them is ‘Where do you see that in the text?’ The question challenges students to read the texts carefully and understand what the arguments are that the writers are making.”

    The four thinkers most often studied in the sequence are Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud.

    “I’ve been teaching this course for 27 years. I love it as much today as I did when I started; however, I think some things have changed over the years in the way we teach the texts,” said Cohler, who also received the Quantrell in 1975.

    When he started teaching the Social Sciences Core sequence, professors sought to help students understand the authors behind the texts, so they could realize the writers’ intentions. “Now we also want to know what the author is saying to the students, what this means to them,” he continued.

    This additional exploration of the material is part of what Cohler and others describe as the “subjective curriculum,” the meanings that students draw from the texts based on their individual responses.

    Cohler, a graduate of the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, noted, “I have a double life as a psychoanalyst, and I think it helps me better appreciate that aspect of learning.”

    The texts, particularly those of Weber and Freud, often touch students’ own identities by dealing with topics such as religion. Additionally, the class reads books that challenge some of their own views, such as texts on the colonial conquest of the Americas.

    “I had a student once whose parents had been missionaries,” Cohler explained. “Her view of the role of religion in the colonial conquest was quite different from that of the author we were studying. By respecting her as a student, I tried not to pass judgment on her particular point of view, but I also tried to get her to respect and understand the perspective of the author,” he said.

    The process of respect also extends to the relationships between students in the class, who are together for the entire year and accordingly learn how to appreciate and value the opinions of others.

    “I have never had any thought of feeling burned out in the classroom,” he said. “The students here are so smart, so interesting, that every class is a new experience,” he said.

    Cohler’s interests presently include life-story and response to adversity and stigma. This year, he is teaching a course on Sexual Identity and the Life Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives, which looks at the social contexts of gays and lesbians at various points in their lives, from childhood to old age. The course was inspired by a book Cohler co-authored with Robert Galatzer-Levy, Lecturer in Psychiatry, which will be published by the University Press next spring.

    That work is part of a continuing interest Cohler has had in life-course development throughout his career. “I have published in my field every year that I have been on the faculty, and I believe that my experience as a researcher makes me a better teacher.”

    Cohler has been part of the University community much of his life. He attended the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and University High School and continued his work at the College, where he received an A.B. in Human Development in 1961. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1967 from the department of social relations and returned to Chicago in 1969 to become Director of the Orthogenic School at the request of Bruno Bettelheim, who was retiring.

    “Bruno was very caring, and I owe a lot to him in my own teaching,” Cohler said. “Bruno had a tremendous capacity for empathy and that is something I try to emulate. It is an ability that helps me respect the students.”

    [milton ehre] by jason smith

    Milton Ehre, Professor in Slavic Languages & Literatures

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    “The role of the teacher is to make himself superfluous,” said Milton Ehre, Professor in Slavic Languages & Literatures, who has received a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “The less they need you, the better the teacher you are. It’s like being a parent.” You are successful if “they just come home for Thanksgiving,” Ehre said with humor.

    “If someone asked me the secret of good teaching, I’d say it is to have good students, then everything after that is a piece of cake,” he said. Having taught at the University for 32 years, Ehre has increased the knowledge of many an intelligent student.

    In describing his classroom, he said, “We try to keep it relaxed, try to have a sense of humor. I try to encourage participation, but I don’t force students to participate.”

    He said he feels sympathy when a student does not participate. “I think everyone wants to participate, but some are overcome by shyness and inhibitions.” He recognizes that quiet students can excel in learning. “Sometimes students who don’t talk in class can be excellent students,” he said.

    One method he incorporates in his classroom is reading texts aloud. Ehre, who currently is teaching two courses––one about the works of Aleksander Pushkin and another titled Human Being and Citizen––reads aloud from both literature and philosophy texts.

    Audibly reading the text helps students absorb the materials, he said. “It makes the text present instead of an abstract discussion.”

    Ehre said if he had a teaching philosophy, it would be to love what you are doing. He chose his profession based on the examples of those who came before him. “The teachers I had in high school seemed to be happy people,” said Ehre, who as a teen-ager decided he wanted to follow in their footsteps. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from The City College of New York in 1955, he taught elementary and secondary school.

    He said he enjoys working with undergraduate students because of their “openness to ideas and the fact that they’re not settled into pre-professional modes. They’re inquisitive about many things––about everything actually.”

    That same inquisitive spirit is what led Ehre to his present career. He began studying Russian as a hobby while attending night school. In 1966, he completed a master’s degree in the language, and four years later, he earned his doctorate degree from Columbia University.

    While teaching at the University, Ehre has translated works by Anton Chekhov and Nikolay Gogol and written Oblomov and His Creator: The Life and Art of Ivan Goncharov. Currently, he is translating Pushkin’s dramas. This September, as a guest of the Academy of Science of Russia, he will be a member of a commission for the creation of the history of Russian literature in the 20th century.

    During the course of the last 32 years, Ehre has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Guggenheim fellowship and two Fulbright-Hays fellowships.

    In some ways, the Quantrell Award is more meaningful, he said. “I’ve devoted my life to teaching, and it’s very nice that other people noticed. This is like pure whipped cream––which I’m not allowed to eat.” As for the award, he is partaking in the delight.