Faculty Stories

UChicago announces 2023 winners of Quantrell Awards

Awards recognize faculty for exceptional teaching, mentoring

The transformative education offered at the University of Chicago begins with the faculty who inspire, engage and inform the students they teach. 

The University annually recognizes faculty for their incredible teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate 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:

Leora Auslander, the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor in the Departments of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity and History

Prof. Leora Auslander works on how abstractions like “nationality,” “class,” “gender,” and “race,” are made and transformed in the things and spaces we use every day. She shows how the smallest differences—in style, in food, in manners—can lead to inclusion, exclusion and sometimes violence.

This awareness manifests in her teaching style, one that makes sure differences are respected and that listening, as well as speaking, is taken seriously. 

“How do you create a classroom community where everybody exchanges their points of view and learns from each other?” asked Auslander, the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor in Western Civilization in the College. “Part of my job is to teach people how to do that. There's no reason to assume that when students walk into a classroom, they have any idea how to actually learn from each other.”

This past Winter Quarter, Auslander taught an Urban Studies course in Paris. One class was held in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an art deco building erected for the 1931 Colonial Exposition that was decorated with stereotypical images of colonized subjects.

The building is a source of ongoing debate in France. Should it be destroyed? Preserved or perhaps recontextualized? Auslander posed the same questions to her class.

“We had a discussion for about an hour where all those positions were represented,” Auslander said. “The debate was vigorous, it was engaged, it was utterly respectful.”

“It was everything that I expected college to be,” said one of the student nominators in the class. “I've never been in a class where people actually changed their opinions because of good-faith debate, but it happened in Professor Auslander's class.”

“I can confidently say that hers is the best course I've taken,” said another student. “It is instructors like her that made me excited to come to UChicago.”

Michael Gladders, Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics

When the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics began offering an intensive undergraduate field research course—intended to last for months and conclude in published research—Prof. Michael Gladders jumped at the chance to teach it.

Not all professors might, but Gladders finds reward in long working relationships with students, so that he can find out what each particular student needs.

“My belief is that every one of our undergraduates is capable of doing extraordinary things in their chosen fields,” said Gladders. “Not all of them may grow into that person by sitting in a lecture class. My job is to find out what they need to be extraordinary and give it to them.”

In this course, students spend time collecting data with the Magellan Telescopes. The first-ever class produced a significant finding; major telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, have since observed that particular galaxy.

The first three years of the course have produced four student-led journal papers, with several more in process. This abundant activity means that there are opportunities for many different strengths to shine—from computer programming to data analysis to writing—and for students to acquire new skills.

“[Gladders] encourages and expects questions of all kinds, regardless of whether students worry that their questions are 'stupid.' Instead, he reassures them that each enters with different sets of skills and budding expertise,” wrote one student. “He actively looks to involve each student equally in the research process, with an understanding of how both interpersonal difficulties and systemic inequities may otherwise have a negative influence.”

Gladders hopes the students leave the class with a better understanding of what it’s like to be a researcher—but also a fresh appreciation for the universe.    

“When you are working with the telescope, you are clawing photons out of the sky from the edge of the cosmos and the beginning of time,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary thing.”

Robert L. Kendrick, the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Music and Romance Languages and Literatures

UChicago undergraduates most impress Prof. Robert L. Kendrick by their curiosity and their willingness to state their own perspectives boldly in the classroom.

“It is wonderful to see them develop interests in things about which they had no idea previously,” he said. “One of my students told me that she listens to Italian Baroque opera all the time now, never having experienced it before.”

A key moment in his classroom occurred when his undergraduate students watched the original choreography of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” According to Kendrick, his students came alive through the combination of the ballet’s visual aspects, Modernism, striking musical gestures and overall place in European culture.

Additionally, he admires the intellectual independence of UChicago students and their willingness to make arguments even against the opinions of instructors or source texts.

Kendrick followed an unusual path to his professorship at UChicago. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he became an autoworker and union activist. After a decade, Kendrick decided to return to school, earning his Ph.D. in musicology from New York University.

At the end of each academic quarter, he asks his students to listen with open ears. “Just as they discovered repertories and styles new to them in the classes, so life will bring them new kinds of sounds and historical situations,” Kendrick said. “Keeping an open mind will be of great importance to their future.”

Phoebe Rice, Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Prof. Phoebe Rice has been teaching “Topics in Biological Chemistry” to students for more than 20 years, and while the subject matter of the course has changed with new tools and technologies over the years, the one thing she always tries to instill is a fundamental sense of wonder.

“I enjoy pointing out things in nature that I think are just amazing and fascinating, and then showing how they work at a very molecular, under the hood level,” she said.

Rice tries not to be too prescriptive in the course. There is no set textbook; students are expected to rely on supplementary reference materials and books from earlier biochemistry courses. One of her favorite assignments is to give students the coordinates for a protein-DNA complex and have them explore 3D models and figure out how it works for themselves.

“Learning the material is important,” she said, “but really understanding what you can do with it, what its implications are, and how it applies to other material is also very useful.”

“Yes, it's hard work and you do have to just learn facts and figures,” she continued. “But there are fascinating things out there. We need to remember why we got into it sometimes: because it’s just really cool.”

James Sparrow, Associate Professor in the Department of History

Assoc. Prof. James Sparrow, who teaches courses in U.S. democracy and history, says there is something special about the students here.

“It really is true that our students are devoted to the life of the mind to a degree that other peer institutions cannot match. I am struck by the seriousness with which students approach their studies here, their awe-inspiring smarts, and the consistently high level of discourse they are able to sustain in classroom discussion,” he said. 

Sparrow said he likes to try to get students to bring together primary documents and historical interpretation, historical evidence and theory or philosophical questions when they encounter the past in his classroom. 

In most classes, he also makes a concerted effort to model historical thinking by getting students to pose their own historical questions. Discussion is central to most of his teaching, as it is in much of the UChicago curriculum, he noted.  

What he hopes to leave students with is a sense of the distance they have covered in transcending the received opinions that many have of the American past.

“Historical insight is hard-won, often personal, yet it opens out onto public questions of great importance whose answers transcend mere opinion, theoretical formula or mechanical solution. In an age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the kind of judgment it cultivates remains a distinctive foundation for human intelligence.” 

He said he advises incoming students not to be timid or cautious in their course selections. 

“Now is the time to go for it. Disrupting your settled views is necessary to open up new avenues for personal and intellectual growth. Disciplinary skills are necessary, but they are wasted in the absence of informed and expansive curiosity, disciplined imagination and wide-ranging knowledge. Finally, seek out discomfort in coursework and experiences that constructively challenge your assumptions and abilities.

“The whole university is at your feet; carpe diem!”

—This story includes contributions from Andy Brown, Tori Lee, Louise Lerner, Sara Patterson, Emily Rosenbaum and Matt Wood and was adapted from a story that was first published to the UChicago News website.