May 27, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 17

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

    [susan kidwell]

    Susan Kidwell, Professor in Geophysical Sciences

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Like fossils, only a precious few ideas leave long-lasting impressions.

    Chicago students have quarried ideas from paleontologist Susan Kidwell’s classroom since 1985. And if her 1999 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching is any indication, Kidwell’s ideas have earned a prominent place in the museum of their minds.

    Kidwell, Professor in Geophysical Sciences, still receives compliments from students who took her Physical Sciences 110 course three years ago. One of the students recently told her, “I liked that course because it was obvious you were really trying to accomplish something with it.”

    The comment prompted Kidwell to wonder if she had come across as though she had an agenda. Then she realized she really did have an agenda: enlightened self-interest.

    “Scientists do not have many opportunities to tell a captive audience why we love doing what we do, how we think, and the different ways of knowing that the sciences provide,” Kidwell said.

    “I want future congressmen to know something about science in general and about earth sciences in particular. And I want those future lawyers and nonprofit professionals and business executives, as well as voters in general, to have as broad a perspective as possible about how the Earth works and the interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere.”

    Kidwell strives to convey to undergraduates the value of science both as a purely intellectual enterprise and as a practical one. Concepts such as deep time, represented by Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, are fascinating issues in and of themselves, she said. Yet the earth sciences also contribute to society through the study of global climate change, the origin and maintenance of biodiversity, and issues as local as coastal erosion and water supplies.

    Upper-level undergraduates and graduate students bring a pre-existing interest in the subject matter to Kidwell’s other classes, Principles of Stratigraphy (the study of stratified rock layers), Taphonomy (how the fossil record forms) and Topics in Biosedimentology and Stratigraphy.

    “But even there, I find that teaching at the phy-sci level has improved my teaching at the 200 and graduate level,” Kidwell said. “It reminds me to do the same things that I make such a concerted, explicit effort to do at the phy-sci level. That is to help the students see the forest and not just the trees––the issues and the controversies, the larger questions that we are trying to understand.”

    To learn the kind of geology Kidwell teaches, going into the field is essential. In the field, students can handle rocks or map them within an area of a few square miles. Alone and with colleagues, Kidwell has taken students on weekend, spring break and summer field excursions to Midwestern states, Utah, Arizona, Montana and Jamaica.

    “On some of these trips, we have a mixture of everyone from first-year undergraduates who are just taking introductory geology to senior graduate students in one class, all out there asking questions and learning together,” Kidwell said.

    Once in the field, students find out just how different rocks can look from what they have seen in the laboratory or in textbook photographs.

    “No matter how many hand specimens you examine in the lab, they’re almost always perfect for their type,” Kidwell said. “Once you get out into the field, nothing looks right at first. So one-on-one tutorials right there on the outcrop are essential to students building the skills and self-confidence they need to go off on their own. To the inexperienced eye, normal rocks can look totally nondescript.”

    Nevertheless, these often plain-looking rocks hold a complex archive of information from which scientists reconstruct the history of the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and life forms. Kidwell sees it as her job to describe the broad sweep of this 4.5-billion-year archive for students in terms they can understand, yet retain the challenging complexity of its mysteries.

    “I think what makes anything interesting is its complexity,” she said.

    [michael labarbera] by jason smith

    Michael LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Geophysical Sciences

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    The wheels are always turning in Michael LaBarbera’s undergraduate classrooms. Sometimes LaBarbera does the driving, sometimes his students do, but the results are often the same: they end up leaving tracks in previously uncharted territory. That could explain why LaBarbera is one of the 1999 recipients of a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “As many people have argued, good teaching very often reinforces good scholarship and vice versa,” said LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and Geophysical Sciences. “Some of the colleagues I stand in awe of really exemplify that idea. I am humbled by the company I keep with respect to the Quantrells.”

    LaBarbera probably is best-known among undergraduates for his introductory Biological Sciences 184 course, Biological Diversity, which spans everything from bacteria to mammals. But they also know him for more specialized courses in invertebrate zoology and fluid dynamics and a field course on oceanic environments.

    Shortly after LaBarbera joined the Chicago faculty in 1978, he taught a Biological Sciences Core course for non-majors. One of his students asked him a question that culminated in rare fashion a year later with a published journal article by LaBarbera.

    “It was one of those curiosity questions that you get asked after a lecture that has nothing to do with the lecture,” LaBarbera said. The student came up and asked, “Why don’t animals have wheels?”

    LaBarbera gave the stock answer. Animals with wheels would have to evolve a circulatory system that could pump fluids through a rotating joint, an unlikely though not impossible development. But LaBarbera further wondered if wheels would really help an organism. The answer is no.

    “Wheels are useful on manmade, artificial terrain like streets and parking lots, but they’re not terribly useful on natural terrain,” LaBarbera said. “If you put on a pair of Rollerblades, you can go like crazy down the sidewalk, across the street and around the parking lot, but don’t try it on the grass. It doesn’t work.”

    LaBarbera also asked himself in what natural environments would wheels actually be useful? It turned out that rolling forms of locomotion––the equivalents of wheels––have evolved in those environments where the vegetation is sparse and the landscape is relatively flat. On the African savanna, for example, dung beetles make little balls out of elephant dung, which they use to feed their larvae.

    “The student forced me to think about the question in a different way than I ever had and indeed than anyone had ever thought about it,” he said. “The real answer turned out to be a lot richer, I think, than the standard answer.”

    And the American Naturalist article that the question inspired continues to be LaBarbera’s most frequently requested reprint.

    But even Quantrell recipients rarely write journal articles triggered by an undergraduate’s question. Much more often professors bring undergraduates into their laboratories so the students can conduct their own research. Three currently work in LaBarbera’s lab.

    Elizabeth Davis studies barnacles for what could become her honors thesis project. The shipping industry spends billions of dollars annually removing them from the hulls of their vessels. “They get on ships’ bottoms, then drag goes up by 20 to 25 percent and fuel economy goes down,” LaBarbera said.

    Using high-speed video equipment that captures the action at up to 1,000 frames per second, Davis is conducting the first careful study of how barnacles capture their food. “We already know that they’re doing some clever things that no one appreciates, just from her preliminary work,” he said.

    Another student, Nicolle Lively, from LaBarbera’s course on fluid dynamics, is investigating the architecture of mammalian circulatory systems.

    “A circulatory system is a bunch of pipes for carrying fluid flow. Clearly the details of the architecture matter. You spend 15 to 20 percent of your total metabolism just circulating blood,” LaBarbera explained.

    Meanwhile, another fluid dynamics student, Alexi Rivera, became interested in blastoids, an extinct marine creature. Working from the fossil record and previous research, Rivera and LaBarbera made a blastoid model and studied its movements in a flow tank to learn which postures would bring in the most food.

    “Once we start looking at them from this point of view, the animals tell us explicitly which way they sat,” LaBarbera said. “It turns out that the standard models are all wrong. The animals would have starved to death.”

    [moishe postone] by jason smith

    Moishe Postone, Associate Professor in History

    By William Harms
    News Office

    As a Quantrell Award winner, Moishe Postone had an excellent role model: Karl Weintraub, a history professor and two-time winner of the honor that celebrates excellence in teaching in the College.

    “What I remember most is Weintraub’s engagement with the material,” said Postone, Associate Professor in History and a graduate of the College. “He was able to convey his sense that the issues raised by the texts we discussed were really important, which is something I try to do as well.”

    Weintraub, the Thomas E. Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in History, received the award in 1960 and 1987.

    Postone carries on Weintraub’s tradition of teaching excellence as an instructor of the College Social Sciences Core sequence Self, Culture and Society. “I have been teaching it since I came here in 1987 as a Harper Instructor, and have been Chair or Co-chair of the sequence since I was appointed to the departmental faculty in 1990.

    “Like my colleagues, I try to help students learn to read texts critically. This is particularly important in the social sciences, since most students entering college have never read primary texts on the social world. By reading such texts, students learn to grapple with various approaches to and understandings of our social universe, and they come to understand that learning about the social world is not simply a matter of acquiring information.

    In Self, Culture and Society, learning how to read critically involves examining works of seminal authors in the social sciences, such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.

    Those texts often generate lively discussions, ones that change with each set of students.

    “When I teach, I try to generate discussion, but I see myself as more than just a facilitator,” Postone said. “What I try to teach students is not primarily an author’s position. Rather, I want them to become aware of the authors’ arguments, their presuppositions, internal coherence and implications.

    “In this way, I try to help develop the critical skills and intellectual autonomy of the students,” he explained.

    Writing assignments also help students develop that autonomy, Postone added.

    “I have them write essays that are not research papers but rather pieces in which they develop an argument. And I ask students to write them in a way that others can understand what they are trying to communicate.

    “That is, I do not want students writing papers just for me, their teacher, but to take responsibility for communicating what they think so that others who are not familiar with the texts can understand what they are arguing.”

    Developing greater intellectual autonomy and maturity is a complex process, Postone said. Ideally, over the course of the year, the teacher-student relationship changes as students become more critically independent.

    “The process is interactive. The more successful I am, the more autonomous the students become. I enjoy teaching at the University a great deal. I draw considerable energy from it.”

    After completing an B.S. degree in biochemistry, Postone changed his research interests and pursued an A.M. in history at the University, where he studied ancient Greece and Europe since 1815. He continued his work at J.W. Goethe-Universitšt, Frankfurt, where he received a Dr. Phil. in 1983.

    Before coming to the University, he was a research fellow at the Center for Transcultural Studies in Chicago. He became a William Rainey Harper Instructor in the Social Sciences Collegiate Division in 1987.

    He is a specialist on Marx and Critical Theory and the author of Times, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (1993), which was awarded the theory prize of the American Sociological Association in 1996.