By Louise Lerner and Jack Wang
The transformative education that students experience at the University of Chicago begins with the teachers who inspire them.
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.
David Archer, Professor of Geophysical Sciences and the College
For years, Prof. David Archer’s class on global warming was one of the most in-demand courses at UChicago—enough that he wound up teaching it twice a year, every year. “I didn’t want to turn anyone away,” he says.
Some students, especially those not in science majors, merely take away a thorough understanding of the problems facing the planet as climate change accelerates. Others might have the same moment of revelation as Archer did decades ago when first learning about how the Earth’s climate regulates itself over long time scales. “The professor was telling us about how carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, and controls its pH, the same as it does in our blood. Probably the angels weren’t really singing, but I heard them,” he says.
It tipped his life toward the study of the global carbon cycle, and thus his favorite moments in teaching are still when a student encounters something in class—say, the metal slag left in the soil after years of steel milling on Chicago’s South Side—that changes their horizons forever.
Support from the UChicago College Innovation Fund and the Howard Hughes Foundation allowed him to equip students to go out into the South Side and take their own measurements of air pollution and heavy metals. Multiple students have gone on to independent research projects based on those findings. “I love to watch people going off in all these different directions,” he says.
Another cornerstone of his class is having students read and present articles from scientific journals. They’re nervous at first, Archer says, but by the end of the quarter they’re not only reading but actively discussing and rigorously interrogating study methods.
“You get a totally different picture from reading scientific studies than you do reading a textbook, which always makes it sound cleaner than it was,” he says. “I want them to see the ragged edge of science, where you don’t know the answer.”
Susan Gal, the Mae and Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and the College
For Prof. Susan Gal, anthropology is not just about the practices of “others.” The field also offers a framework for thinking about the role of the United States within that global context.
This past fall, she saw this sort of conversation come to life. Teaching a course about how militaristic nationalism is incited around the world, Gal asked her undergraduates to think about big questions: What does it mean to feel loyalty to a nation? How do those feelings tie into language and religion, to tourist destinations and heritage sites?
Each student brought to the discussion a different experience, ones they saw in a new way as ritual events of nationalist sentiment.
In a letter nominating her for the Quantrell Award, one student described Gal’s interest in nations and nationalism as “contagious.” A history major, the student credited Gal’s course as having shaped the topic of their undergraduate thesis, imparting “a love for anthropology and its methods.”
Gal wants her students to leave her class knowing how to question and explore common concepts, both in scholarship and everyday life: “Ask how those concepts are made and maintained, by whom, for what effect.”
“I find it wonderful that among University of Chicago students there is a widespread eagerness, even hunger, for grasping how the world works,” she says. “So many students become sophisticated thinkers, quick to engage with the most complex concepts in the social sciences. And then in discussions they argue with me, using those concepts. That makes for great whiplash moments.”
Miguel Martínez, Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College
Last fall, Assoc. Prof. Miguel Martínez selected a text he had never taught before.
His students had enrolled in a course on world literature as part of the College’s Core curriculum, and the focus of the quarter was the epic. In addition to ancient works like the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, he added something more recent to the syllabus: Canto General, a modern epic poem by Pablo Neruda.
“I was terrified,” Martínez says. Published in 1950, the sprawling, complex opus spans more than 15,000 lines—attempting to cover the entire history of the Americas.
The students loved it.
These are the sort of classroom moments Martínez loves most. In the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, he has taught courses covering a variety of genres, from picaresque novels to the “Golden Age” poetry of 16th- and 17th-century Spain. No matter the text, his goal is to guide toward deeper intellectual and emotional discoveries.
“Students often take courses in Spanish because they find it useful for their future careers,” Martínez says. “They want to be linguistically and culturally competent. That is a crucial part of what we do in our department."
“But it’s really satisfying when they also find beauty and power in the literary and cultural traditions that we teach. In the case of Latinx students, these are actually their own traditions, so they may be able to enjoy and learn from things they were not aware of.”
Eric Schwartz, Professor of Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences and the College
Prof. Eric Schwartz teaches two very different courses with a common theme: “What we know is often determined by how we know.”
Thus his courses are designed to give students a firsthand look at the sometimes messy process of how scientific ideas and consenses are built and developed over time. In one course, students read and discuss original scientific papers in biology. His other course is an intensive, monthlong course at the UChicago-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in which students design and build instruments to observe the behavior of single protein molecules. (“If you limit your experiments to the devices that are already available, your view will be limited,” he says.)
Schwartz’s teaching has been influenced by two professors that he met during his own undergraduate years. “Fifty years later I still remember their individual styles, which animated calculus and physical chemistry. The common, essential feature was a commitment to present a personal view of their subject,” he says. “Today I try to do the same.”
He recommends that new faculty and junior colleagues likewise stress how ideas are conditioned by both facts and history. “Students can always learn from a textbook. I believe that they come to class is to get what is not in the text—a way of organizing facts into a perspective, which can evolve.”
If Schwartz could have his students leave his courses with any final message, he says it would be: “The course is not over; continue tinkering with your perspective.”