Faculty Stories

UChicago announces 2021 winners of Quantrell Awards

Awards recognize faculty for exceptional teaching, mentoring amid unique year

The classroom has long been the foundation of a transformative University of Chicago education. This past year, however, students have found inspiration even without traditional classroom settings—guided by faculty who have navigated unusual circumstances with empathy, curiosity and a spirit of collaboration.

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

Learn more about this year's recipients below:

Sally Horne-Badovinac, Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and the College

This year, a review session for Assoc. Prof. Sally Horne-Badovinac’s “Fundamentals of Developmental Biology” course ran an hour and a half long. “I missed my next meeting,” she recalled, “but it was the most fun I’d had all quarter!” 

This kind of active dialogue with her students is what Horne-Badovinac values most about teaching.

A developmental biologist by training, Horne-Badovinac strives to inspire the same sense of awe she felt when she first learned about the subject, which is the science of how cells divide and differentiate to form tissues, organs and organisms. “I remember it was a mind-opening experience,” she said.

Horne-Badovinac hopes to elicit similar feelings from her own students: “I want them to come away with a sense of wonder about development. I want them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful.’”

After 11 years teaching “Fundamentals,” Horne-Badovinac is still thrilled to see students understand difficult concepts like how different genes operate within a pathway. To tackle such topics, she makes her lectures especially interactive, which appeals to the inclinations of UChicago undergraduates. “I know everyone says this, but it’s true,” Horne-Badovinac said. “They are smart, engaged and they really want to learn.”

She captures the imagination of her students in part by putting material in context, and by pointing out current open questions in the field—a way of teaching that one student described as “storytelling.”

“It’s not just what we know, but how we know it,” Horne-Badovinac explained. “I want to provide places where a student could get involved if they felt inspired to.”

Patrick Jagoda, Professor of English and of Cinema and Media Studies and the College

For Prof. Patrick Jagoda, learning and play should be synonymous. As a game designer, Jagoda sometimes asks his students to play a video game before class, and then discuss it from many angles, from form to player experience and historical context. 

He particularly loves teaching “The Stanley Parable,” a philosophical game that asks a player either to obey or resist a narrator, while raising important questions about choice, authority and consent in a digital environment.

“Every time I teach this game, students majoring in disciplines as diverse as psychology, economics, philosophy and gender studies contribute so many thoughtful theories and interpretations,” said Jagoda.

The approach is popular with students, whom Jagoda also works with through the Weston Game Lab—which fosters collaborative game development—and the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which creates games about public health and for underrepresented youth in STEM fields. 

In a nomination letter for the Quantrell Award, one former student wrote of Jagoda: “In the classroom, his passion for his work is palpable, and he presents his insights into the realm of digital media in a cunning, easy-to-follow argumentation so casually and kindly presented that the audience has to truly engage with his material to go beyond simply marveling at his conclusions.”

Beyond the world of gaming and critical inquiry, Jagoda encourages students to approach learning in ways that allow them to enjoy the process of discovery. Being willing to take risks and fail creatively, he believes, can help yield more original ideas.

“There is a lifelong joy,” Jagoda said, “in discovering and creating new knowledge, connecting seemingly unrelated fields, and using what you learn to make the worlds around you more just and better for other people.”

Jonathan R. Lyon, Associate Professor of History and the College

When teaching undergraduate students, Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Lyon tries to find readings that will excite students. “If I pick up something and I’m bored reading it, then I assume my students will be bored reading it,” he said. 

A historian of medieval Europe, Lyon often teaches in the European Civilization Core sequence, in which he asks students to read works by Galileo Galilei, who argued that the sun—rather than the Earth—was at the center of the solar system.

Lyon then puts Galileo on trial in class, assigning students to be judges, prosecutors or defenders. The idea is to get students to understand the mindset of 17th-century Europeans by asking them to adopt the perspectives of the time period.

“That’s one of the discussions that’s consistently generated lively conversations among students,” Lyon said, “both because Galileo is fun to read and because it’s such a big question to grapple with, in terms of clashing conceptualizations of the universe.”

Students agree: “Prof. Lyon’s gift for teaching and the enthusiastic engagement he inspires in his students create a very special learning environment, in which I have personally grown so much as a medievalist,” one wrote in a letter nominating him for the Quantrell. 

Lyon also teaches a course on comparative kingship, and one on medieval masculinity through the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Though his goal is to help students understand historical context, his dialogues with students inform his own scholarship as well.

“On the last day, I always thank my students,” he said. “Because the questions they’ve asked have inevitably pushed me to think about some aspect of the course material in a new or a different way.”

Ada Palmer, Associate Professor of History and the College

The key concepts Assoc. Prof. Ada Palmer hopes students take away from her classes are a sympathetic attitude toward the past, and a more plural sense of who has power in history. When analyzing actions of past peoples that seem baffling or foolish, she said it is important to remember that our predecessors were living in a different world than we are now.

“I think that empathy across time carries over to empathy across culture in our present, making students more willing to try to understand the different mindset behind an action that seems strange,” she said.

Empathy is central to her popular course, “Italian Renaissance History: Wars of Popes and Kings,” in which Palmer has students work together to simulate the papal election of 1492. By shaping a simulated history with their own actions and choices, students experience how power is always both plural and partial—how even the humblest clerk had the power to affect world-changing events while no one, not even popes and kings, had complete power to control them. Role-playing, she said, helps students step into other perspectives and understand others’ actions from the inside. In a nomination letter for Palmer, a former student described the election simulation as “the single most incredible experience I had ever been involved in for class.”

Palmer also emphasizes the importance of empathy in helping students combat their own self-doubt. In addition to teaching the human flaws and faults of historical figures, she has been open about her own struggles with chronic pain, which stems from a combination of Crohn’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome and other factors. These conversations, she said, help promote visibility for the disabled community. 

During the pandemic, Palmer has started classes by mentioning some of her own recent errors, be it misspelling a word or missing a deadline.

“Discussing our weaknesses is immensely powerful, especially when someone in the position of power there at the front of the classroom is willing to break the ice and reveal weakness first,” she said. “No one on Earth is operating at 100 percent right now—and it means the world to students to have the person at the lead in the Zoom call recognize that directly, and admit that they aren’t at 100 percent either.”

Blase Ur, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Computer Science and the College

Asst. Prof. Blase Ur ascribes his teaching philosophy to a musical experience: playing bass in his high school jazz band. His band teacher believed in “giving students the opportunity to take the reins” from the very start, Ur said, allowing even freshman students to work their way up to leadership roles quickly. In his courses on computer security and privacy, Ur goes beyond technical instruction to encourage his students to debate, find their own research interests and make connections between computer science and broader society.

“I really value engagement with the world and its practical problems, demonstrating how fundamental tools of computer security, privacy, and ethical computing apply to each week’s headline news,” Ur said. “Ultimately, I try to convey that real-world problems often don't have clean solutions. They require approaches at the intersection of coding, math, design, law, philosophy and communications. I think it’s critical for students to see holistically how the modern world works, particularly the role of computation and technology.”

As with jazz, that approach requires improvisation. In courses such as “Introduction to Computer Security” and “Ethics, Fairness, Responsibility & Privacy in Data Science,” Ur constantly refreshes his curriculum with example topics pulled from the headlines—wading into a recent debate about controversial research on operating system security or, last spring, critiquing the design of contact tracing apps for COVID-19. 

In both in-person and virtual environments, Ur also values co-teaching because he can debate these issues with a colleague, modeling healthy intellectual disagreement for his students and demonstrating that many foundational topics in applied computer science are not yet settled.

“Blase teaches each of his classes with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject,” a group of his students wrote in a nomination letter. “This helps students engage in discussion of the questions and ethical quandaries he poses far beyond the classroom. He spends countless hours designing brand new assignments that introduce students to crucial tools used in industry, while inspiring us to think about problems more deeply.”

—This story includes contributions from Andy Brown, Louise Lerner, Rob Mitchum, Amanda Parker and Max Witynski, and was adapted from a story that was first published to the UChicago News website.