Faculty Stories

Faculty who inspire undergraduates honored with UChicago teaching awards

University announces winners of Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards

The transformative education that students experience at the University of Chicago begins in the classroom with the teachers who inspire them.

The University annually recognizes faculty for exceptional teaching and mentoring with the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards, believed to be the nation’s oldest prize for undergraduate teaching.

Read more about this year’s winners and their distinct approaches in the classroom below:

Albert Bendelac, A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Pathology and the College

Teaching immunology is a family affair for Albert Bendelac. Many of the students who take his introductory course move on to an advanced immunology course taught by his wife, Prof. Bana Jabri, who won the Quantrell Award in 2017.

When asked if Jabri is a tough critic of how he prepares students for her course, Bendelac said: “Actually I get a lot of compliments from her. She knows how I teach and can adjust where she takes over. It’s almost a seamless transition for the students.”

Immunology is an incredibly complex field, and the amount of information students have to process about how the immune system interacts with pathogens can be daunting. Bendelac said the key to keeping undergraduates engaged as he introduces them to the field is to convey this complexity without overwhelming them with details.

“You don’t want to turn them off. You want to excite them and inspire them,” he said. “My mission is to cover all the key aspects of the field but not go into excruciating detail, like knowing the music but not necessarily all the words.”

Claudia Brittenham, Associate Professor of Art History and the College

Claudia Brittenham has built her work on the premise of looking closely—both as an art historian and as a teacher.

Two brightly colored figurines of fantastical animals are shown atop a stack of books.
Brittenham claims a “real weakness” for a kind of Oaxacan craft called alebrijes—carved, wooden figures of fantastical animals. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Brittenham is focused on the art of ancient Mesoamerica, particularly how the materiality of art and the politics of style contribute to our understanding of images. In her introduction to art course, Brittenham helps undergraduates develop skills for looking at visually interesting things—wherever they may find them.

“Whether it’s a work of art in a museum, a monument on the street or an ad that they’re seeing in their web browser, all of these things can be analyzed visually,” Brittenham said. “It’s our conviction that it’s really important that people learn how to look.”

By incorporating hands-on activities, like asking students to examine an ancient form of book called a screenfold codex and calculate how much they owe in taxes, or taking a field trip to view murals in Pilsen, Brittenham aims to get her students to think of the images they study in her courses as objects out in the world.

“Prof. Brittenham has the superhuman abilities to animate a classroom or lecture hall, and to communicate the amazing treasure that ancient Mesoamerican art is,” wrote a student who nominated Brittenham for a Quantrell Award. “She fosters and celebrates the multi-disciplinary makeup of a class and makes each student feel worthy of participation.”

Berthold Hoeckner, Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College

It’s no coincidence that music historian Berthold Hoeckner views his classroom as a theatrical space.

“At first, I’m the playwright, director and actor, and the students are the audience. At the end of the quarter, they start teaching each other, and I’m in the audience,” said Hoeckner, who drew inspiration for his classroom model from Chicago Booth Prof. Harry L. Davis.

A small stone sculpture of an harpist sits atop a drum.
Hoeckner was mesmerized by sculpture of a harpist from the Cycladic culture “because it shows that people were making music for a major part of our civilization.” (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Hoeckner researches how complex artwork such as film and opera create meaning, and how that meaning is meaningful in people’s lives. He brings this approach to life in “Listening to Movies,” a new Humanities course popular with undergraduates from across disciplines interested in how sound and music contribute to cinematic storytelling.

“Students are very good at noticing things, so they really appreciate a deeper understanding of what they see and hear,” said Hoeckner, who has taught at UChicago for 25 years. “What you see, hear and feel become part of how we apprehend the world and are absolutely crucial in influencing the choices we make. It’s part of what I would call the ‘education of the senses.’”

Hoeckner enjoys helping students grow and develop, and said in each class he always happens to learn something from his students. “It happens even when I’m teaching topics that I know really well. A student offers an insight that would have never occurred to me. I love those moments.”

Maryanthe Malliaris, Associate Professor of Mathematics and the College

Maryanthe Malliaris loves teaching UChicago students because they are in it for the ideas above all else.

“You can advertise challenging, leading-edge courses, and students will line up to take them,” she said, citing the fact that her hardest courses are often taken by students who aren’t planning to specialize in the area. “When you explain to them a great theorem from the literature, or the frontiers of our current understanding, they will listen closely, roll up their metaphorical sleeves and start thinking.”

It’s clear the students find it worth the difficulty. One who nominated her for the Quantrell wrote: “It is not an understatement to say that Prof. Malliaris’ Mathematical Logic course was the most mind-blowing and enriching course I have ever taken.”

A mathematician who studies model theory, an area of mathematical logic, Malliaris said her approach to teaching is to try to explain why she has devoted her professional life to figuring out these problems. “She was in awe of the beauty of the mathematics that she taught, and it showed,” another student wrote. “She would marvel at the mathematical constructions, and showed us just how unusual, beautiful, surprising and remarkable some of the results we derived were.”

She is carrying on a tradition she experienced herself: In the summer after her sixth grade, Malliaris took a summer math class at UChicago coordinated by famous mathematicians Paul Sally and Diane Herrmann, and was hooked. “This class first made math come alive for me,” she said, “and I'm grateful to many exceptional teachers in the years since who reinforced that.”

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, Samuel N. Harper Professor of History, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the College

A historian of Latin America, Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo has been a scholar for over two decades, including 13 years at the University of Chicago. He has written more than a dozen books and won numerous awards. But none of that would be possible, he said, without teaching.

“The only real mark we are going to leave in this world is in the minds of our students,” Tenorio-Trillo said. “The rest is very important. Yes, we publish books, and we research. But without teaching, there are no great ideas.

“How are you going to test your ideas, if not in the classroom? How are you going to imagine how to synthesize big concepts if you haven’t tried it in the classroom?”

Tenorio-Trillo speaks highly of his relationship with graduate students, whom he compares to colleagues, but said he finds “real fun” in his interactions with undergraduates.

“Maybe I like it better because they mold my mind,” he said. “They are very inquisitive. They have a way of seeing things that I not only don’t have, but I can’t predict. They teach me things. I can catch up with books; I cannot catch up with what’s happening in the world. They make me catch up.”

—Adapted from an article that was first published on UChicago News.